The coal industry\'s ace in the hole

May 17, 2008

The coal industry is planning to replace oil by turning coal into liquid fuels and into feedstocks for the chemical industry. Of course they are also planning to burn ever-more coal to produce electricity. If these plans materialise, green chemistry and renewable solar energy will both be sidelined for the rest of this century.

You may have heard that "coal is dead". But this is not the case; in its struggle for survival, the coal industry has an ace in the hole. In July, the industrialised nations of the world are going to announce their united support for "clean coal".

Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US are about to sanction burying today's global warming problem in the ground, passing it along to our children to manage essentially forever.

There's one major problem with the coal industry's plans, and that's carbon dioxide, the most important global warming gas. Therefore, the coal industry's plans all hinge on the development of "clean coal" — a clever name for an untested idea, burying billions or trillions of tons of liquid, pressurised carbon dioxide in the ground, hoping it
will stay there forever.

Burying CO2 is called "carbon capture and storage", or CCS
for short. If the public can be convinced to support (and pay for) "clean coal", then the coal industry can flourish. If not, the way will remain open for renewable energy and green chemistry.

Big coal

The coal industry is politically very powerful, especially within the administration of US President George W. Bush. One measure of this power is the US$5 billion in subsidies for the coal industry embedded in the Energy Bill that Congress enacted in 2005.

In his 2006 book Big Coal, Jeff Goodell describes how coal companies and electric utilities came to dominate many aspects of the Bush administration, convincing the President to renege on his 2000 campaign promise to impose mandatory controls on CO2, gutting the "new source review" provisions of the Clean Air Act, and manipulating the mercury rules to suit the industry.

Early in the Bush years, bad news was piling up for the coal industry. In January 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that greenhouse gases might warm the planet by as much as 5.8°C during this century — which nearly everyone at that time recognised was a dangerous state of affairs. (It's a tribute to the power of the coal industry that today, seven years later, essentially nothing has changed.)

In June of 2001, the prestigious US National Academy of Sciences issued a report that the New York Times described as follows: "In a much-anticipated report from the
National Academy of Sciences, 11 leading atmospheric scientists, including previous skeptics about global warming, reaffirmed the mainstream scientific view that the earth's atmosphere was getting warmer and that human activity was largely responsible".

The Times went on: "Greenhouse gases are accumulating in earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise", the report said. "Temperatures are, in fact, rising."

Promoting carbon burial

Anyone paying attention in 2001 could see that CO2 emitters were about to be blamed for dislocating the climate. Luckily for the fossil fuel industries, later that year the World Trade Center and Pentagon atrocities unfolded, President Bush soon embarked on two difficult wars, and the world's focus drifted away from global warming for a time.

While the newspapers were focused on Bush's perpetual war on
terrorism, the fossil fuel industries and their supporters in Washington quietly ramped up a new international organisation to promote the only solution to global warming that would allow the coal and oil industries to continue business as usual — carbon burial.

The organisation they created in 2003 is called the Carbon
Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF): its members include 21 countries and the European Union, but its secretariat (its administrative apparatus) resides within the US Department of Energy in Washington. The US Department of Energy had been promoting CCS half-heartedly since 1997, but the CSLF represented a 1000-fold increase in effort.

Two years after the CSLF was created, in 2005, the wealthy Group of 8 nations (or G8) announced its plan for solving global warming. It is called the Gleneagles Plan of Action or more often simply the G8 Plan of Action. The centerpiece of the G8 plan is "clean coal" with CCS. The coal industry was getting its ducks in a row.

Immediately after the Gleneagles Plan was adopted, the G8 expanded its circle of "clean coal" supporters to include the entire OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) — the 30 wealthiest nations in the world.

Since 1974, the OECD has had its own energy department, known as the International Energy Agency, with headquarters in Paris. Since 2005, the IEA has been carrying water for the "clean coal" industry. By spreading small amounts of money around, the coal industry, and its helpmates within the US Department of Energy, quickly created an impressive global network of institutions and projects to promote CCS.

In 2006 and 2007, the IEA and the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum co-sponsored three technical workshops on "clean coal" and CCS. The first workshop, held in San Francisco, identified the issues involved in CCS; the second, held in Oslo, Norway, assessed the specific opportunities for CCS that had been identified in the first workshop. More ducks were falling into line.

After the first two workshops, the IEA issued a lengthy report titled, CO2 Capture Ready Plants. This report describes the features of a power plant that could be built today, which would be ready to capture and store its CO2 emissions underground whenever CCS becomes feasible. Even if CCS never becomes feasible "capture ready" is a label being applied to power plants in hopes that they will be licensed for construction today, a good 20 years before commercial-scale CCS could be ready.

Given the immature state of CCS technology, it is unclear whether "capture ready" is anything more than an optimistic label for old-style power plants, a PR ploy rather than a serious statement of intent to capture CO2.

Dr Mark Diesendorf at the University of New South Wales in Sydney suggests that "the possibility of large-scale geosequestration [carbon burial], three or more decades in the future, is being used to deflect attention away from the current reality of business-as-usual. Thus, geosequestration is less about sustainable development and more about sustaining the coal industry by greening its image."

In any case, a host of difficult issues must be resolved before CCS could be commercialised, including such matters as (a) what constitutes a suitable site for CCS and how do you know when you've found one? (b) how to identify potential leakage pathways; (c) how to analyse the likelihood and consequences of large releases; and (d) how
to monitor for leakage for thousands of years. These and many related questions of ownership and liability would have to be addressed before CCS could proceed at commercial scale.


By the time the third IEA/CSLF workshop was held, in Calgary, Alberta, in November 2007, the IEA and the CSLF had their final ducks lined up. That workshop issued a mere one-page report which simply called for the "urgent deployment of CO2 underground storage".

The one-page report said, "Twenty full-scale plants each storing more than a million tonnes per year of CO2 need to be operating by 2020 worldwide". And it said, "This conclusion demonstrates that a very powerful international consensus is building on the urgency of adopting carbon dioxide capture and storage as a key emissions abatement option".

A very powerful consensus indeed: the OECD, the G8, and most importantly the US Department of Energy all concluding that the best way to avert global warming is to process more coal, not less, and bury the resulting CO2 in the ground, hoping it will stay there forever, essentially passing the largest problem we've ever created on to our children to solve.

This coming July 7-9, the G8 nations will meet in Hokkaido, Japan and will announce their conclusion — more than five years in the making — that the "urgent deployment" of carbon burial CCS technology is essential. To save the world from catastrophic global warming, "clean
coal" is the answer, they will say.

This announcement will give CCS considerable credibility and will give coal a tremendous boost — and it will put anti-coal activists on the defensive.

No, coal is definitely not dead — and the future of renewable energy and green chemistry both hang in the balance.

[Slightly abridged from Rachel's Democracy & Health News #949, March 6, 2008. Visit to see the full article.]

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