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Clean coal not a good goal

While the world scrambles to find efficient and effective fuel sources, a former foe of the biosphere seeks to renew friendship under a cleverly deceptive guise, as clean coal proponents claim the technology is the answer to the current energy crisis.

Coal has a deep-seated history with humans – it’s been used since the British Bronze Age, 2000-3000 years B.C. – and has been pegged as the culprit for the genesis of mass environmental degradation as the fuel that fired – or perhaps steamed-powered – the Industrial Revolution.

Since coal is the most copious fossil fuel, and because the U.S. doesn’t have to wait in vain for peace in the Middle East to get their hands on it at a prudent price, clean coal almost sounds like a good idea.

But because of its costs and the threat of further ecological endangerment, clean coal probably won’t be a contender for the leading energy source in the near future. Lester Brown, president of environmental think tank Earth Policy Institute, had it right when he said: “the goal is to raise both efficiency and turn to renewables while backing out of coal in the process.”

Promising clean coal by 2012, FutureGen is a cooperative government and private project to begin construction in 2009. The plan is to create a near-zero emissions plant that aims to produce hydrogen and electricity while employing a carbon-capture and storage system to combat emissions.

The Department of Energy and a consortium of coal mining and power companies fund the project, providing $620 million and $250 million, respectively. With that whopping $879-million price tag, it seems unfeasible for commonplace companies to whip together a clean coal plant or two within the next few years.

Even if there were some unprecedented economic boom and companies could fashion a number of such technological wonders in the next few years, the environment would still be trampled by clean coal, as usual.

The freshly publicized concept of carbon-capture and storage is not unlike the “disposal” of nuclear waste: It serves only to redirect the emissions from one waste stream to another, further advancing the reaches of pollution. Director of Sierra Club’s Global Warming and Energy Program Dan Becker may have a valid point when he said: “There is no such thing as ‘clean coal’ and there never will be. It’s an oxymoron.”

Technology exists to remove most sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions from coal burning. This relieves some of the strain placed on the natural nitrogen cycle, but the pressure remains on the carbon cycle with heavy carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon-capture and storage does for carbon dioxide and radioactive particles in coal what deep geological repositories do for nuclear waste – little.

Basically, the carbon and radioactive byproducts are collected and then stored somewhere that isn’t a direct threat to human life: buried in aquifers, depleted coalmines, geological faults or in the ocean’s depths.

The mentality seems to be that poison leaching into the earth’s crust, making the ocean more acidic and ruining ecosystems are problems that future generations can deal with. But pawning off the mess that this generation’s energy demands leave behind isn’t very conducive to responsible biosphere stewardship, nor is it respectful to

future generations.

Beyond these byproducts, the persistent problems of coal extraction still remain. According to Richard T. Wright, author of Environmental Science, strip mining “totally destroys the ecology of a region, as forests are removed and streams are buried by the coal wastes.” Also, coal mining is hazardous work and endangers human lives, and underground fires in these mines are not uncommon.

The Pennsylvania borough of Centralia is a prime example of anthracite coal mining gone horribly wrong. A 45-year-old fire rages beneath the town, feeding off of an 8-mile seam of coal, which is estimated to fuel the fire for another 250 years, according to Kevin Krajick in his Smithsonian Magazine article “Fire in the hole.” The fire began in 1962 when an exposed coal vein ignited from the standard practice of burning garbage at the landfill, located in a vacant mine pit.

As for the fate of the town, this year’s reported population of the borough is nine people, a drop from last year’s 12. The irony of the underground environmental atrocity is that, since the town’s population can be counted by using one’s fingers, the ecology of the area has seen new forests emerge.

As idealistic as putting an innovative spin on an archaic fossil fuel may be in theory, it’s much like communism – it only looks good on paper.

Renowned physicist Albert Einstein’s personal views on progress and change may shed some light on why emphasis on clean-coal reflects backwards thinking and should not be pursued, saying: “The world cannot evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.”

Jaclyn DeVore is a junior majoring in mass communications.