The coal industry's latest greenwashing campaign

November 21, 2008

The Australian Coal Association (ACA) has launched a new website () and advertising campaign aimed at convincing us that coal producers are not filthy carbon merchants profiting from the most emissions-intensive fossil fuel available, but can be modernised and cleaned up using "low-emissions coal technology".

Moreover, the "NewGenCoal" website portrays the coal industry as sincere climate activists: "Reducing CO2 emissions. Everyone can do a little. The Australian Coal Industry is doing a lot."

However, $1 million worth of flashy animation and YouTube-style videos, and another $1.5 million worth of ads for the new website in major newspapers, cannot gloss over the fact that "clean coal" is extremely unlikely to ever be made viable, except perhaps in one or two locations and at enormous expense.

The ACA website outlines four low-emission coal "demonstration projects" to try to illustrate the viability of "clean coal". One of them, the Callide oxyfuel project, reveals a massive problem that the "clean coal" magicians are trying to resolve.

When coal is combusted with normal air, the resulting emissions contain the 78% concentration of nitrogen that the air contained to begin with, along with extra carbon dioxide. So, not only would they need to bury millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, for "clean coal" to be effective, they will also need to bury millions of tonnes of nitrogen, at millions of dollars extra cost.

The Callide project seeks to address this problem by pumping "virtually pure oxygen" into the boiler, instead of regular air. This means the emissions from the plant are "virtually pure carbon dioxide" and don't contain a lot of nitrogen. For "clean coal" to have even the remotest chance of being commercially viable, every "clean coal" plant will need to be fired in this way.

However, industrial quantities of pure oxygen are obtained by distilling liquefied air, a very cash- and energy-intensive process. If oxygen costs $40 per tonne, they will need to buy $80 worth of oxygen for every tonne of coal they want to burn, instantly doubling the cost of the operation. "Clean coal" plants will need either their own liquid oxygen refineries or an endless stream of trucks bringing compressed oxygen to them.

Other examples offered on the new website to promote the "clean coal" dream include an amine chemical carbon dioxide stripping plant at Munmorah power station, which "it is hoped" will capture 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2013.

What is not explained is that, even if this plant can be made to work at full scale, it will capture less than 5% of Munmorah's emissions, leaving 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year to fuel global warming.

The major attraction of coal as an energy source in capitalism is that it is cheap to extract and generates huge profits for the companies that run the industry. "Clean coal", however, if it can ever be made to work practically, will be tremendously expensive.

The coal lobby tries to portray wind energy and other renewable energy sources as unreliable and not economically viable, in contrast to "clean coal", which it asserts is a practical solution to climate change. Yet wind, bioenergy and solar thermal energy are already-existing, substantially cheaper alternatives to "clean coal".

These sources, plus geothermal, if given the same amount of research and development investment that "clean coal" is currently enjoying, could be further refined and made even more cost effective.

Deriving 100% of Australia's baseload energy requirements from a combination of renewable sources is a formidable technical challenge, but is a piece of cake compared to making "clean coal" work.

One of the most astounding and offensive aspects of the ACA's new PR campaign is its pretence at taking climate change seriously. The introduction on the website homepage solemnly tells us, "Climate change isn't just happening. Many scientists think it's accelerating".

If the ACA was serious about stopping climate change it would admit that its large, extremely well resourced team of researchers is having great trouble making "clean coal" work and, at least for the foreseeable future, contingencies should be developed.

But the only thing the ACA is actually serious about is developing super-slick ways to greenwash an industry that has been superceded by that most inconvenient of truths — climate change.

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