The Myth of Clean Coal

Foes of Mountaintop Removal Have No Ally in the White House

Barack Obama seems to be following a dirty legacy when it comes to his official energy policy, a policy that has left Appalachia with fewer mountaintops every year.

The price of oil per barrel fluctuated dramatically in the past year, and the U.S.’s dependency on foreign crude has become less stable as tensions in the Middle East have escalated. Over his long campaign, Obama laid out his strategy on how to deal with the crisis, which has been exacerbated by the war in Iraq and the potential confrontation with Iran, not to mention the oil speculator’s dubious role in the money game. But sadly Obama has been echoing old solutions to our new 21st century environmental troubles. Mainly, where is our energy going to come from if oil supplies dwindle or prices skyrocket again? And how will this all affect the dire reality of climate change?

President Obama supports an array of neoliberal strategies to deal with the country’s volatile energy situation. He is not opposed to the prospect of nuclear power, endorses capping-and-trading the coal industry’s pollution output, and supports liquefied coal.

Well, that’s a maybe on the latter.

“Senator Obama supports … investing in technology that could make coal a clean-burning source of energy,” Obama stated in an email sent out by his campaign in June 2007. “However, unless and until this technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20 percent less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels.”

You did not just read a lofty proclamation from the new White House change agent, but a well-crafted rationale meant to appease the environmental movement. Meanwhile, back in his Senate days, Obama’s record relays a much different position on the issue.

It was only six months before the aforementioned email that Republican Senator Jim Bunning and Obama introduced the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. The bill, introduced in January 2007, was referred to the Senate committee on finance and would have amended the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as well as the Energy Policy and Conservation Act to evaluate the feasibility of including coal-to-oil fuels in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and provide incentives for research and plant construction.

Shortly after the introduction of the bill, Tommy Vietor, Obama’s spokesman, defended the senator’s proposal, “Illinois basin coal has more untapped energy potential than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Senator Obama believes it is crucial that we invest in technologies to use these resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

It was at the onset of the Nazi era that coal-to-liquid technology came to the forefront of modern energy science. In the latter part of the 1920s, German researchers Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch developed the initial processes to liquify the dark rock into fuel. The procedure was utilized throughout World War II by both Germany and Japan. In fact, coal-to-liquid technology largely fueled Hitler’s bloody campaigns throughout Europe, as Germany had few petroleum reserves but held vast amounts of coal deposits throughout the country. Not too unlike the United States’ fossil fuel conundrum of today.

By 1930, Fischer and Tropsch had applied for several U.S. patents, yet it wasn’t until earlier last summer that the first U.S. coal-to-liquid plant was set for construction in West Virginia. But while liquid coal may help replace petroleum based fossil fuels, it is certainly not an answer to global warming.

“The total emissions rate for oil and gas fuels is about 27 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon, counting both production and use,” states the Natural Resource Defense Council. “[T]he estimated total emissions from coal-derived fuel is more like 50 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon — nearly twice as much.”

Has Obama had a change of heart, or has he just flip-flopped around like a suffocating trout for political leverage? The answer to that question may reside along the nuanced path we are getting all too used to seeing President Obama traverse these days. As his presidential campaign website read in late October 2008:

“Obama will significantly increase the resources devoted to the commercialization and deployment of low-carbon coal technologies. Obama will consider whatever policy tools are necessary, including standards that ban new traditional coal facilities, to ensure that we move quickly to commercialize and deploy low carbon coal technology.”

The apartheid government of South Africa was the first to use liquid coal for motor vehicles, and it seems, despite the “low carbon coal” rhetoric, that Obama may be poised to carry on the dirty legacy of liquid coal.

The move from foreign oil to locally mined coal, “low carbon” or otherwise (no coal energy has zero carbon emissions), would only change the dynamics of the U.S.’s massive energy consumption, not its habits, which is at the heart of our current energy woes.

Plus the coal has to come from somewhere. As a result of our consumptive lifestyles, the mountaintops of the Appalachia region, from Tennessee up to the heart of West Virginia, are being ravaged by the coal industry — an industry that cares little about the welfare of people or the land that it is adversely affecting with its industrial mining operations.

The concept of “clean coal” is nothing more than unabashed greenwashing.

The debris from the mining pits, often 500 feet deep, produce toxic waste that is then dumped in nearby valleys, polluting rivers and poisoning local communities downstream. No state or federal agencies are tracking the cumulative effect of the aptly named “mountaintop removal,” where entire peaks are being blown apart, only to expose tiny seams of the precious black rock.

There has been little to no oversight of the wholesale destruction of these mountains and Obama has not addressed the ruin in any of their bullet point policy papers on “clean coal.” Any new coal burning technology, whether it be liquidification or otherwise, would surely rely on the continuation of such brutal methods of extraction, and carbon output would still be significant. And it is not just the burning of coal that is damaging to the environment.

On December 22, 2008, a coal slurry impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal fired power plant in Harriman, Tennessee spilled more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash into the Tennessee River.

The epic spill was over 40 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. Approximately 525 million gallons of black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama and Kentucky. The true adverse effects of the spill are still not known.

The fight in West Virginia to stop mountaintop removal has been heating up in the past few weeks as 13 radical environmentalists, led my veteran activist, Mike Roselle, protested by chaining themselves to bulldozers at the Massey Energy Corp. site in Raleigh County on February 3. The group was arrested and cited for trespassing on private property.

“Trespassing is certainly a serious offense, but destroying a mountain is more serious,” Roselle said of the arrests. “I am going to be here until this issue is resolved. This is a serious environmental crisis that we face [today].”

During his confirmation hearings, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, was asked about how the Obama administration would handle US coal production.

“The fact of the matter is it powers much of America and there are lots of jobs it creates,” said Salazar, who is no foe of the mining industry. “The challenge is how we create clean coal. I believe that we will move forward with the funding of some of those demonstration projects so we can find ways to burn coal that don’t contribute to climate change.”
And so the rhetoric spins.

President Obama may receive high marks from the League of Conservation Voters and be touted by the Sierra Club for being marginally better than his predecessor on the environment, but when it comes to his position on the U.S.’s coal extracting future, the president’s position is not only wrong, it is absolutely disastrous.

Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in June 2008. Check out the Red State Rebels site. Read other articles by Joshua.

7 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. HR said on February 13th, 2009 at 11:45am #

    Laissez-faire capitalism has utterly failed. That should be apparent to all who have lived through the boom-and-bust cycle of the last 30 years. Now, we have a peddler of hope and change as chief executive, one who is showing himself to be yet one more “leader” whose goal is to maintain that sad status quo. We are a nations of fools, of complete idiots.

  2. Max Shields said on February 13th, 2009 at 12:04pm #

    HR, I would say that Obama is much much more dangerous than George W. Bush.

    The failure you mention is the great rush of eternal justice. Brace yourself it’s going to get much worse before we find our way out.

  3. Don Hawkins said on February 13th, 2009 at 2:12pm #

    Very soon we will know if this administration will try. If they do it will not be easy and if they don’t it will not be easy. If they don’t try tuff times ahead doesn’t begin to explain it. I have been watching the Senate today and I think some of these so called leaders have been taking a nip or two and could be one reason I am seeing incredible stupidity on the problems we face. Another reason could be because they live in some sort of parallel Universe for the mind. There seems to be no other explanation.

  4. Brian said on February 14th, 2009 at 7:12am #

    I just saw a clean coal ad on last night during Olberman or Maddow (their shows seem to run together, both based on hashing out what the corporate mainstream wants discussed, albeit from a slightly liberal point of view).

  5. Don Hawkins said on February 14th, 2009 at 7:59am #

    These so called leaders need are help to find there way. A few million to start in front of the Capital where so far it’s dumb think. One voice loud and clear get it together. We will probably not get a second chance. The time is now. We are out of time to start.

  6. Don Hawkins said on February 14th, 2009 at 8:41am #

    SAN FRANCISCO, California, February 13, 2009 (ENS) – To fight climate change, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity Thursday opened a new law institute in San Francisco and announced the dedication of an initial $17 million to the project.
    The Climate Law Institute will use existing laws and work to establish new state and federal laws that will eliminate energy generation by the burning of fossil fuels – particularly coal and oil shale.
    Burning these materials emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that have already raised the planetary temperature, threatening the widespread extinction of species, sea level rise and ocean acidity, food and water scarcity, heatwaves, wildfires and floods.
    “Global warming is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. It is the defining issue of our time,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center.
    “To meet the challenge, the Center for Biological Diversity has created the Climate Law Institute to extend the reach of current environmental and human health laws to encompass global warming, pass new climate legislation, and reinvent America’s approach to protecting endangered species and public lands,” he said.
    “The planet can not afford a single new coal-fired power plant,” said Suckling. “It can’t even afford existing coal plants. Working with partners in government and the environmental movement, the Center for Biological Diversity will ensure America moves beyond coal energy as rapidly as possible. Our lives depend on it.” ENS
    Our lives depend on it. Forget the science for a minute all anyone has to do is look at the changes going on now to this planet. When you then look at the science it is very clear we are all in trouble. Yes there are some who get paid by big oil or corporations and those who want to get paid. The time is now for my kids and there kids there lives depend on it.

  7. Tree said on February 15th, 2009 at 2:28pm #

    Interesting article and I really admire the activists who were arrested but the author needs to review his geography as Kentucky is not “downstream” from Tennessee.