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Clean Coal: Reality or Rhetoric? 


What is Clean Coal?

Is it Really Clean?

Clean Coal Technologies

Clean Coal in the Media

The Cost of Clean Coal

Case Studies

References & Links

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Clean Coal: Reality or Rhetoric? 

Is it Really Clean?

According to the Department of Energy, The Clean Coal Power Initiative, which President George W. Bush introduced, “is providing government co-financing for new coal technologies that can help utilities meet the President’s Clear Skies Initiative to cut sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury pollutants from power plants by nearly 70 percent by the year 2018.” [2]  One study that was released by the EPA in July 2006 showed that IGCC technology can reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide emitted by around 60%, which a significant improvement over pulverized coal plants, but does not eliminate sulfur dioxide emissions altogether.[3]  The Clean Coal Power Initiative does not address the issue of carbon emissions from coal-burning plants, which the public has become very concerned about in relation to climate change, and thus, in many cases has become opposed to new coal-fired power plants. Nor does clean coal technology, no matter how “clean” it becomes, eliminate controversies over “dirty” methods of retrieving coal, such as mining andmountaintop removal (see Figure 4), and the issues associated with them. These new “clean coal” plants also still produce problems of water pollution, requiring large evaporation ponds with sludge and heavily polluted water.[4]  These new plants may be cleaner than coal has been in the past, but is society really ready to accept coal as clean when it still produces massive amounts of carbon dioxide, requires extraction techniques that harm the environment and people, and still cause significant pollution? 

Clean Coal Technologies
There are many different technologies that are considered part of “clean coal.” However, one of the major and most-focused on technologies is the Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) coal-fired power plant. These plants combine crushed coal with oxygen and water in a high pressure gasifier, which creates “syngas,” a combustible fuel.[5] IGCC plants create very little emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and particulates; they also use less water and create less solid waste.[6] However, while their concentrated carbon dioxide emissions make the compound easier to capture and store, the carbon emissions are not reduced.[6] IGCC technology is much “cleaner” in some respects, due to its lower emissions of sulfur dioxide (60% less than pulverized coal plants), nitrogen oxides, mercury, and particulates compared to conventional pulverized-coal power plants, in which coal is crushed and burned in a boiler, producing steam to power a turbine in order to create electricity.[6] However, there are downsides to this new technology. The plants are still not as reliable as traditional pulverized coal plants, and due to their implementation of complex technology, they are more complex to operate.[7] Furthermore, can IGCC technology really be considered “clean” if its carbon emissions are not reduced? Even under optimal conditions, such as in IGCC plants, coal still produces more than two times the amount of carbon dioxide than natural gas per unit of electricity, and the plants are still not as clean as other power sources such as wind and solar.[8]  In order for coal to be more “clean” in that sense, IGCC technology must be paired with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, or carbon sequestration.

Carbon Sequestration would take carbon emitted by the coal industry and sequester, or store, it in pumped-out oil and gas fields, in the shallow oceans, or in geological reserves such as underground coal seams or saline reservoirs, thousands of meters underground.[9] The captured carbon could also be utilized in other types of energy production; it could also be injected into the ground in order to push more oil and natural gas to the surface.[10]  CCS technology is not currently commercially available, and it is unknown whether it could actually be implemented on a large, cost-effective scale.  Critics of the technology have also said that storage has the potential to be very dangerous in the case of leaks.[8]  Carbon is currently stored in three locations: one in Canada, on in Algeria, and one under the North Sea.[10]  However, there is currently no facility that both captures and stores carbon dioxide.

Works Cited:

[2]“Clean Coal Technology and the President’s Clean Coal Power Initiative.” Fossil Energy. US Department of Energy.
[3] Pelley, Janet. “Is EPA blocking clean coal technology?” Environmental Science and Technology. 1 January 2007. Pg. 11-12.
[4] LaPlaca, Nancy. “The Myth of Clean Coal: Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) Power Plants.”  Energy Justice Network.  <>
[5] “Clean Coal Technology: How it Works.” BBC News. 28 November 2008.   25 April 2008. <>.
[6] Snell, Marilyn Berlin. “Can Coal be Clean?: New ways to burn a dirty fuel.” Sierra Magazine. January/February 2007. Accessed on April 9, 2008. <>.
[7] Edwards, Steven. “IGCC Technology: A Promising – and Complex- Solution.” World Energy. V8. N3. 2008. <>.
[8] Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “Europe Turns Back to Coal, Raising Climate Fears.” The New York Times. 23 April 2008.
[9] Biello, David. “ ‘Clean’ Coal Power Plant Canceled – Hydrogen Economy, Too.” Scientific
American. 6 February 2008. Accessed 25 April 2008.
[10] Loder, Asjylyn. “ ‘Clean Coal?’ What about the carbon?” St. Petersburg Times. 29 September 2007. Accessed 25 April 2007. <>.
[11] “Is Clean Coal Feasible?” The Futurist. Novermber-December 2007. Pg. 8-9


Figure 4: Chart on Mountaintop Removal

For more information on how clean coal technologies visit:


    Figure 1: A coal-fired power plant

Last updated:  5/9/2008


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