What about the “clean coal” both candidates claim to support? There is some calculated ambiguity around the term these days, as there has always been. The practice among U.S. power executives has been to fight off EPA rules as long as they can, and when they are eventually forced to install pollution controls, claim that whatever results is “clean coal.” (It’s not a new idea. The term dates back to the early 20th century.) But insofar as it’s a term of art in contemporary energy discussions, “clean coal” means coal plants with attached facilities that capture carbon emissions and bury them underground.
Coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is good PR for the industry and a good way for Obama to be seen to support coal, but in terms of power markets, it is a non-entity. “Clean coal” currently produces zero percent of U.S. electricity. Of the handful of coal plants with CCS that were planned in recent years, most have been canceled or put on hold due to their extraordinary cost. One of the few going forward, the Kemper coal plant in Mississippi, is 25 percent done andhas already gone over budget twice. Its tab, which is nearing $2.8 billion, will be paid by Mississippi ratepayers whether or not the plant ever reaches operation.
Absent huge new subsidies or a stiff carbon tax, it’s unlikely that CCS will ever evolve into a serious market competitor. So the real question, the practical question, is what to do about dirty coal — the kind that exists in the real world.
Another reminder that “clean coal” is a meaningless term.