Is the Biden-Obama position on clean ‘clean coal’ a mistake?


Today, my inbox is bombarded with emails from enviros and clean energy advocates, some of whom say that Biden’s (and Obama’s) support of clean coal is “abysmal, absolutely abysmal.” I could not disagree more.

I have this argument with enviros all the time. Tuesday, I argued the point with Ted Glick, the national coordinator of the US Climate Emergency Council on Earthbeat radio. You can listen to the audio here.

Yes, I think it is mistake to use the term “clean coal” — especially since it is only in the last few years that many people (but not all) have begun to use it as a synonym for coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Yes, you can’t make coal “clean” in any meaningful sense of the word, which is why I prefer using “coal with CCS.” And yes, I have spelled out my views in detail that coal with CCS is almost certainly not going to be a practical and affordable climate solution for the next two decades (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“), which happens to be the same conclusion of a new McKinsey report.

That said, the nation and the world are in a very desperate situation. To avoid 5°C or more warming this century, to avoid ruining the health and well-being of the next 50 generations, we must replace most of the world’s energy system in the next few decades with carbon free technology while working with developing countries to ensure they build their economy primarily around carbon free technology — see “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 2: The Solution.” And then in the second half of the century, we’re going to have to replace all of the remaining dirty technology with carbon-free technology.

Indeed, if you believe the nation’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, who has arguably been right longer about the climate than anyone else, then our goal must be to get atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide back below current levels — and that means net global carbon emissions from humans (including deforestation) need to be near zero or below zero by 2100 (see “Hansen (et al) must read: Get back to 350 ppm or risk an ice-free planet“). If you want to get back below 350 ppm, the world would need to begin large-scale deployment of carbon-negative technology and energy systems that pull carbon out of the air and put it somewhere.

That’s why I believe it is utterly immoral not to aggressively pursue the development of any plausible low-carbon or zero-carbon technology that has the potential for large scale (several hundred gigawatt) deployment. And serious analysis, like McKinsey’s, says that coal with CCS could be economical by 2030. Moreover, a CCS power plant that runs on coal blended with cellulosic biomass is one of the most plausible carbon-negative forms of electricity you can imagine. So we must pursue the development of coal with CCS, which is what Obama and Biden and virtually every other energy/climate policymaker and analyst mean when they use the term.

Whether a given carbon-free technology should ultimately be the focus of large-scale deployment efforts depends mostly on its cost, and we simply don’t know whether clean coal will make the cut. All we know today is that it has a very large hurdle to jump, as I’ve argued. Certainly our focus for the next two decades needs to be on the massively scalable carbon-free technologies that are cost-effective now or are in the process of becoming so — efficiency, wind, solar PV, and solar baseload (see “Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?“).

As Obama has said famously said, a president needs to be able to do more than one thing at a time. To solve the climate problem, we must massively deploy the current generation of clean tech while developing the next generation. And that is his energy policy (see “Breaking news — A real energy plan for America: Efficiency now, 10% renewables by 2012, and one million plug-in hybrids by 2015“).

So what precisely was so abysmal about what Biden said Thursday night. Let’s look at the transcript of everything he said on energy, climate and clean coal:

BIDEN: Well, I think it is manmade. I think it’s clearly manmade. And, look, this probably explains the biggest fundamental difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and Joe Biden — Gov. Palin and Joe Biden.

If you don’t understand what the cause is, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a solution. We know what the cause is. The cause is manmade. That’s the cause. That’s why the polar icecap is melting.

Now, let’s look at the facts. We have 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves. We consume 25 percent of the oil in the world. John McCain has voted 20 times in the last decade-and-a-half against funding alternative energy sources, clean energy sources, wind, solar, biofuels.

The way in which we can stop the greenhouse gases from emitting. We believe — Barack Obama believes by investing in clean coal and safe nuclear, we can not only create jobs in wind and solar here in the United States, we can export it.

China is building one to three new coal-fired plants burning dirty coal per week. It’s polluting not only the atmosphere but the West Coast of the United States. We should export the technology by investing in clean coal technology.

We should be creating jobs. John McCain has voted 20 times against funding alternative energy sources and thinks, I guess, the only answer is drill, drill, drill. Drill we must, but it will take 10 years for one drop of oil to come out of any of the wells that are going to begun to be drilled.

In the meantime, we’re all going to be in real trouble.

IFILL: Let me clear something up, Sen. McCain has said he supports caps on carbon emissions. Sen. Obama has said he supports clean coal technology, which I don’t believe you’ve always supported.

BIDEN: I have always supported it. That’s a fact….

IFILL: OK. And on the clean coal issue?

BIDEN: Absolutely. Absolutely we do. We call for setting hard targets, number one…

IFILL: Clean coal.

BIDEN: Oh, I’m sorry.

IFILL: On clean coal.

BIDEN: Oh, on clean coal. My record, just take a look at the record. My record for 25 years has supported clean coal technology. A comment made in a rope line was taken out of context. I was talking about exporting that technology to China so when they burn their dirty coal, it won’t be as dirty, it will be clean.

But here’s the bottom line, Gwen: How do we deal with global warming with continued addition to carbon emissions? And if the only answer you have is oil, and John — and the governor says John is for everything.

Well, why did John vote 20 times? Maybe he’s for everything as long as it’s not helped forward by the government. Maybe he’s for everything if the free market takes care of it. I don’t know. But he voted 20 times against funding alternative energy sources.

Not only don’t I find anything troubling whatsoever about his remarks, I think they are dead on. He is absolutely correct about China. More important, he and Obama “call for setting hard targets” on carbon, including an 80% emissions cut by 2050, which is what ensures that any clean coal that gets deployed does in fact contribute to reducing carbon emissions (see “Obama’s excellent energy and climate plan“).

What precisely does Obama’s energy plan say about what kind of investment he and Biden would make in clean coal? Here is every mention in his energy plan:

Invest In A Clean Energy Economy and Help Create 5 Million New Green Jobs. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will strategically invest $150 billion over 10 years to accelerate the commercialization of plug”in hybrids, promote development of commercial scale renewable energy, encourage energy efficiency, invest in low emissions coal plants, advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure, and begin transition to a new digital electricity grid. The plan will also invest in America’s highly”skilled manufacturing workforce and manufacturing centers to ensure that American workers have the skills and tools they need to pioneer the green technologies that will be in high demand throughout the world. All together these investments will help the private sector create 5 million new green jobs, good jobs that cannot be outsourced….

Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology. Carbon capture and storage technologies hold enormous potential to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as we power our economy with domestically produced and secure energy. As a U.S. Senator, Obama has worked tirelessly to ensure that clean coal technology becomes commercialized. An Obama administration will provide incentives to accelerate private sector investment in commercial scale zero”carbon coal facilities. In order to maximize the speed with which we advance this critical technology, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will instruct DOE to enter into public private partnerships to develop 5 “first”of”a”kind” commercial scale coal”fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration.

That’s it. He has committed to pursue R&D and then have 5 commercial scale pilot plants. Almost everything else in this detailed 8-page plan focuses on renewables and energy efficiency. And his climate plan is equally detailed about his commitment to sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Those who obsess over statements by Obama and Biden on clean coal are missing the forest for the trees the bark.

33 Responses to Is the Biden-Obama position on clean ‘clean coal’ a mistake?

  1. Jade A. says:

    Joe you must have lost your marbles. Carbon Capture & Sequestration has not been effectively proven to work! How do we know that the carbon dioxide that is sequestered is just not going to leach out of the ground in a few years time? What kind of effect will industrial sequestration of CO2 have on aquifers and the top soil? We need to be closing down coal fired power plants, not building new ones under the guise of “clean”, which is just bait and switch energy policy. Barack Obama needs to stop pandering to coal miners in Illinois with this clean coal nonsense and dump out these fraudulent securities in his energy porfolio.

    [JR: Leach out. Please. If you want to engage in serious debate, that’s fine. This is deep underground salines aquifers, not the ones we get water from. Yes, you don’t bother doing this if you can’t be very confident there is no leaking, as I discussed at length in my book. But a lot of smart people think that is possible. Again, I really don’t think how I could be any clearer that you don’t build the coal without CCS.]

  2. hapa says:

    the reality is that the knob for coal will be turned down. no political speech can change that. will an obama environmental secretary sue to keep an ancient coal plant open? no.

    but if you talk about “clean coal” all the time — you probably have a longer timeline in mind that reality dictates, than science dictates. 2020 matters. 2030 matters. 2050 is irrelevant now except for cleanup.

  3. John Mashey says:

    Some groups actually know how to run research programs, i.e., real R. rather thant schedulking breakthroughs.

    Here’s one group: GCEP – Global Climate and Energy Project.

    As I’ve said before, while one deploys the technology one has, one keeps funding lots of little research efforts (typically a few Principal Investigators and handfuls of grad students) for 3-5 years, and hopes that a few interesting results emerge, which lead to further research, development, and for a very small percentage, to large-scaleout, but only in decades.

    Here’s the conference, going on right now, about 600 people signed up:

    2008 Symposium.

    As one can see, about 1/6 of the presentation time is spent on Carbon Capture and Storage, i.e., Stanford and GCEP think this is worth spending *some* time on, although many more efforts are on other areas.

    They do this every year, and it’s actually *free* to attend.

  4. Milan says:

    There seems to be no lack of enthusiasm for developing CCS for coal.

    We just need to remain aware of the possibility that it will not work, or that it will be too expensive to be viable.

    Pursuing CCS as one of many technological options makes sense; banking emissions reductions from it before the technology is proven certainly does not.

  5. Sensible Centrist says:

    What about the “other” clean coal: using algae to remove the carbon, and making biodiesel out of it? Isn’t that likely to become far cheaper? I understand that then burning the biofuel releases the carbon, but if it displaces oil, then no difference there, but the coal burn becomes clean. Read about it in Krupp’s book.

    [JR: Biofuels may turn out to be a core climate solution, as I have blogged, but they are not climate negative as a coal/biomass blend with CCS would be.]

  6. David B. Benson says:

    From the comment by Dunn (also read Dietz’s) in:

    I put the total cost of Professor Keith’s CCS-from-air scheme at around $275 per tonne of carbon. That’s about twice as expensive as burying biochar deep underground.

  7. Rick C says:


    Let’s assume for the moment that IGCC plants will be economical per Kinsey’s report by 2030. Would it also be feasible to phase out conventional coal plants, offset the closed coal plants with wind, photovoltaic solar, solar thermal electrical generation and/or geothermal power before these IGCC plants become economically feasible by 2030?

    [JR: Tricky question. The answer is “maybe, with two big buts.” First, some states (and utilities) are going to want to have an option to generate carbon free electricity themselves, rather than being forced to import solar baseload from, say, the Southwest — even if CCS and nuclear are more expensive. Second, you have other countries, like China, India, and Russia. But I hope I have been pretty clear here that I not supporting a massive deployment of IGCC here. Just RD&D.her in]

  8. jcwinnie says:

    Sheesh, it’s stupid to be anti-bailout and immoral to be anti-carbon, what next?

    [JR: Who the heck are you directing that to? I’ve never said that it’s stupid to be anti-bailout nor have I ever said it’s immoral to be anti-carbon.]

  9. john says:

    Look, if someone can figure out how to use coal to generate electricity without emitting carbon, AND they can actually get the cost low enough to sell it, why not?

    I say that, knowing it won’t happen. Cleaner energy and efficiency will beat it out.

    There are other issues of course. Mountain top mining destroys habitat and devastates freshwater.

    But we need every arrow we have in our quiver — and new arrows to boot.

    Fresh water issues are reversible; habitat can re-establish itself — albeit in a new form — but climatic changes on the order we are inducing them, are irrevocable.

    As for leaking C02 from deep saline aquifers — well, I headed up an EPA effort to implement the so-called “no-migration” rule for underground injection of fluids.

    It can be done safely. Indeed, the fact that oil — which is buoyant — can be found in the formations in which it was formed some 70 or more million years ago is testimony to the integrity of geologic traps.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    john — I estimate the cost of burying biochar (almost 100% carbon) deep underground is around $110–140 per tonne of carbon. That’s $30–38 per tonne of carbon dioxide.

    Place a surchange of that size on fossil carbon and use that to grow biomass, pyrolysise the stuff and bury the biochar deep underground.

    Note that about doubles the effective price of coal…

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Mineral sequestration may well be more cost-effective in the long run:

    It has the further advantage of completely removing the carbon from the carbon cycle.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    Here is an olivine approach which has quite a low cost estimate:

    much less than biochar.

  13. Jim O'Rourke says:

    OK, Joe, didn’t see that coming but you make me feel a little (very little) better. I usually think of JB as a bright guy who is a blowhard but I thought he was fantastic in the debate except that he mentioned the most preposterous contridiction of terms: “Clean Coal” at least twice but I think more. Having dealt with State Legislators from Coal States and lobbyists for Big Coal, I thought he must be trying to shoplift some votes from the mid-west. I also thought he might be throwing it out there because it is such a far off fantasy that it didn’t really matter.

    Still, with millions of real Americans listening to a distinguished US Senator who otherwise gave a Career performance, I thought it was extremely irresponsible. Worse yet he attached an even worse contridiction: Safe Nuclear (or Nukular per Sarah Palin and GWB).

    Thankfully he was eloquent on the need and opportunity to launch a massive Apollo style Clean Energy Intitiative.

  14. Andy Bauer says:

    I’m going to cross my fingers that Biden understands the issue the way you do. But there’s no way I got that sense the way he delivered it on stage.
    Obama and Biden need to take a page from FDR, who encouraged people to get educated on WWII, ie. find a map and follow along. Hard to do in a 90 second format, but… Job One: STOP calling it ‘clean’ coal!
    If we absolutely have to take a bite from that coal sandwich, P & VP candidates must level with us that there is no other way.

  15. Nuclear energy is far far safer than coal. I’m disappointed that they would even be compared in this manner.

    Nuclear energy contains all of its wastes–coal dumps them into the atmosphere.

    I’m disappointed in both candidates for their support for the fantasy of “clean coal”.

  16. Charlie says:

    I suspect that the O/B campaign’s inclusion of clean coal has more to do with electoral politics than planning for energy supply in 2030. And I think it’s fine to tell the coal industry that we are happy to let them attempt to develop cost effective CCS, whether or not that’s likely to ever be achieved. We just have to be careful that the public funding of R&D doesn’t get excessively diverted in that direction, to the point that efficiency and renewables get neglected.

  17. Eric says:

    Apropos of nothing, just came across this:

    “If coal were expended, people might fall back upon solar energy in the shape of evaporation, winds, or tides. The tidal wave might, perhaps, be utilized in an island country, facing the Atlantic Ocean, but the enormous area of tidal basin that would have to be constructed would be a serious difficulty. The suggestion that the sun’s rays might be accumulated in a focus, by means of gigantic lenses, and that steam-boilers should be erected in such foci, is, Dr. Siemens fears, hardly practicable in a country like England where the sun is rarely seen and little felt.”
    — New York Times, Oct. 14, 1973

  18. Eric says:

    Whoops! I wrote 1973 — it’s /1873/.

  19. Bob Wallace says:

    “I’m going to cross my fingers that Biden understands the issue the way you do. But there’s no way I got that sense the way he delivered it on stage.”

    I neither expect or require than Biden and Obama become energy experts.

    I expect them to create an atmosphere in government in which the ‘best of the best’ in the field are called on for their considered advice and legislation is created to take us in the most promising direction.

    We’re hiring new CEOs in November. Not Chief Engineers.

    Eric – 1972/3 I got my first “hands on” experience with computers when our lab got a Dec PDP 8E with 16 MEGS of RAM. No monitor, teletype input/output, punched paper tape data/program storage, $28,000.

    Things sure have changed in the last 35 or so years. We’ve learned how to capture the sun’s power much more efficiently.

    And England is becoming sunny….

  20. John Mashey says:

    Bob Wallace:
    1024X Typo:

    This is a nit, but I guarantee that in 1973 you did *not* have a 16 *MB* RAM PDP 8E….
    try 16KB.

  21. Eric says:

    hope you caught my correction — I meant to write *1873*. How much ram did we have in 1873?

  22. David B. Benson says:

    Eric — In 1873 we had lots of rmas to service the ewes. :-)

  23. David B. Benson says:

    Opps. Rams.

  24. Bob Wallace says:


    Ain’t is how better we remember the old days to be than they really were?

    And Nope.

    I didn’t read your correction.

    Having had a bit of experience with sheep on a farm. The goal is just barely enough rams for the ewes. Fewer rams the better….

    Looks like we’re all experiencing some technical difficulties.

  25. David B. Benson says:

    Bob Wallace — 200,000 ewes.

    That’s a lotta rams! :-)

  26. Ken Fabos says:

    Whilst I hesitate to say clean coal is in need of a major breakthrough, a lot more development is needed. A lot more if we want to bet the world’s future climate on it becoming ubiquitous in any kind of climate relevant time scale. Building more coal plants with the assumption they can be retrofitted with CCS (that’s barely shown itself feasible) doesn’t seem wise to me – I’d much prefer to see the development of coal plants that can be switched on and off quickly enough to be squeezed into the role of backup for renewables. That would make them a worthwhile transitional technology until grid and storage are developed to the point where it’s just good old cost cutting common sense to close coal down completely.

    I’m sure I’ll be told that switchable coal is too expensive, too technically challenging or just plain impossible. And that grid and storage that can provide reliable renewables-only energy is too expensive, too technically challenging of just plain impossible. In both cases I suspect it’s more a case of expensive rather than impossible – for storage, thermal style, the technology required is pretty basic, but, since there’s been an abundance of coal and nuke plants running 24/7 there’s never been a need to have utility scale storage at all. Because it doesn’t exist it’s easy to assume it must be unfeasible. Technically challenging for sure, to scale it up to get days or weeks of energy for a major city or industrial region. Lot’s of Nimbyers to persuade or ride rough shod over. But not by any stretch is it impossible.

    Coal prices may have shot up but coal is an industry more than capable of carrying on when prices are low, so it’s not cost parity with high demand Carbon tax boosted coal that is ultimately required, but clean energy that’s cheaper and better than coal at any price.
    International and nation specific incentives, disincentives, tax breaks and penalties and R&D, both private and public all belong in the mix. (In that last case I don’t think a real breakthrough or two would go astray even if they aren’t strictly essential or are longshots. I’d hate to see them missed for the sake of some R&D spending cuts. R&D, especially R, does tend to pay off and, even if specific aims aren’t realised, the increase of knowledge feeds and flows through to more incremental developments elsewhere.

    So I don’t think any strategy is out of order to get a handle on climate change. Mmm, second thoughts on that last – wishing for a global recession and/or collapse of civilisation to do it is something I draw the line at; I think this challenge will take more civilisation than humanity has ever demonstrated ever. The current financial turmoil, even if it results in a temporary apparent reduction in GHG emissions (and probably result in CC Skeptics insisting the show’s all over, time to go home and stoke up the coal fire) is unlikely to add any impetus to fundamental change in how we make and use energy and will probably sap some of the momentum to do so. From a climate change matters point of view (my own, admittedly not that deeply knowledgeable, POV) it looks be a clear negative, making sticking with what we have look even better and make the funding of major new energy infrastructure a lot harder.

  27. David B. Benson says:

    Sinking the carbon:

    mentions olivine as a possiblity.

    The poster session pdf file I linked previously claims that the cost of the plan therein might eventually be as low as $14 per tonne of CO2 removed from the air; $52 per tonne of carbon.

  28. john says:


    The means of sequestration you suggest are worth pursuing … although I believe we need a little more evidence that they are permanent, and as you note, they double the cost of coal derived power. This makes most forms of renewables less costly …

    Concentrating solar and hot-dry rock geothermal are functionally base-load, their potential is huge, and they are less expensive than coal with CCS. With an intelligent grid, intermittent and on-site renewables such as wind and roof-top solar become viable replacements for coal. Add in off-shore wind, tidal and ocean thermal, all of which can ( or soon may) beat coal with CSS– mix in a 40 to 50% increase in efficiency across the economy, and I don’t see coal with CSS being a real issue …

    And of course, if we do develop a cost-effective means of storing energy, ( the one place where we could actually use a breakthrough) it’s game game over for coal.

  29. Bob Wallace says:

    How about pump-up hydro for storage. Very efficient. All you need is some water and a change in elevation. We’ve got close to 2,000 yet-to-be converted dams/turbines in the US right now. (IIRC) Power lines already running to them.

    And compressed air (CAES). No more than $0.08 per kWh, possibly half that. One site under construction as we speak.

    Bet we get to affordable renewable w/storage before we get to affordable coal w/sequestering.

  30. David B. Benson says:

    john — There are many non-point sources of excess carbon, principally for transportation but not limited to that. There are also point sources for which carbon capture seems too difficult, principally cement production. So there is a need for some form of carbon removal; the olivine reaction is safe, secure and appears that it will be inexpensive.

  31. Ken Fabos says:

    Bob, I think Hydro storage is great if you have suitable locations. They don’t exist everywhere. They don’t exist most places and could have to compete with agriculture and other uses for the water. CAES deserves some scaled up demo plants. Molten salt needs some scaled up demo plants. A bit of foresight and planning is required on storage or else it becomes a renewable energy catch-22; no need to build them until coal plants shut down, can’t shut coal plants down until the storage is in place.

    Or there is a much improved grid. Or both.

    A major R&D challenge ought to be development of transmission that can cross between continents – the transmission side of the old Space Power Satellite proposals used to send Australian solar power to Europe, African to China, Middle Eastern (some irony here) to the USA? And of course any excess US solar to wherever the sun’s not shining. HVDC is being used to link Europe and Africa but that’s not in the same league as crossing Atlantic or the Pacific. Can it be improved that much? Is it time to look again at superconductors – although refrigerating undersea cables to supercold temperatures and reliably keeping them cold does look daunting.

    A Global grid may not bring energy independence but it could provide clean energy security. Meanwhile back in the present, I’d like to see more action worldwide on the development of utility scale storage so it’s lack isn’t an ongoing excuse to keep the coal fires burning and fail the Climate challenge.

  32. Cyril R. says:

    Yes, mineral sequestration works well, for a low cost (a cent or two per kWh).

    The chemical pollutants can be radically reduced by active filters and other advanced pollution abatement controls.

    This would make coal clean enough by reasonable standards. Of course there will be unreasonable people objecting. Like unscientific environmentalists. The only plausible negative argument would be the (local) impact of mining the coal. Underground gassification has advantages but also carries it’s own surface stability risks.

    I don’t think such ‘clean enough’ coal could compete with electric markets (like wind), but liquid fuels might be useful for many purposes.

    Underground methanization of coal deposits by bacteria is also being researched. Methane is very useful, also as a chemical feedstock.

  33. Ideally, no new coal-fired plants should be built before the technology for CO2 removal at the source is developed. The smart money should, must, be on concentrated solar and deep geothermal for energy sources instead of coal. And it is imperative that we begin building CO2 scrubbers as quickly as possible and begin the process of removing the excess of CO2 from our global atmosphere. We cannot survive unless we take these steps. It’s that simple.