Clean Coal? Is That Like A Poor Billionaire? (aka American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity) is currently running a television campaign attacking the Obama administration’s evironmental protections.  The commercials claim that “clean” coal is an important part of our nation’s energy needs.

They ignore the fact that there simply is no such thing as “clean” coal.

While it is true that much of our electricity comes from coal and will for many years to come, coal should be viewed as little more than a necessary evil.  We will not be able to completely avoid its use for the foreseeable future. However, we should be working to free ourselves from it.

Coal is a carbon-based fuel and, as such, its use spews large quantities of carbon dioxide (aka greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere. According to Richard Conniff in his article, Myth of Clean Coal, coal-fired power plants produced 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide — 36 percent of total U.S. emissions in 2006. So even with the use of the most advanced technology, coal-fired plants are harming the environment. And many older power plants lack the technology to clean other elements from their smokestacks, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, mercury, and fine particulates. Indeed, coal power plants are the primary reason most of the lakes across the upper US have warnings limiting the number of fish that should be consumed due to mercury pollution.

And emissions are not the whole story.

Much of our coal is mined by mountaintop removal in the Appalachians, transforming the beauty of the region forever.  In addition to flattening the terrain, over 1,000 miles of West Virginia streams have been buried by strip mine waste.  300,000 acres of hardwood forests in West Virginia have been destroyed.  And 75 percent of West Virginia’s streams and rivers have been polluted.  Underground mining is not much better.  For generations, some coal mining companies have skirted around safety regulations, endangering those who work in the mines.

Yet another issue is coal ash (aka fly ash), the residue from burning coal.  Operators of coal-fired power plants have long been puzzled as to what to do with this by-product.  In the area of the Tennesee Valley Authority, they built vast containment pools.  In 2008, one of those containment dams burst creating a torrent of this poisonous residue into the Emory River. Cost of the cleanup is estimated at more than $1.2 billion.  A few weeks later another spill occured in Alabama polluting Widows Creek and the Tennessee River.

The real crime is that, with a little investment in our infrastructure, we could be moving away from coal as a means of generating electricity.  Studies have shown that roughly half of all the electricity generated in the US is lost in our outmoded “grid.”  So half of the pollution to our air, water and soil is completely unnecessary

A modern grid coupled with increased use of solar, wind and other alternative means of generation could all but eliminate coal-fired electric generation in the US.  But “America’s Power” will never include that information in its ads.