Report: Coal Industry Talks ‘Clean Coal’ but Spends Few Dollars On It

Our guest blogger is Daniel J. Weiss, a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

America’s coal industry is blowing smoke on the American public, misleadingly hyping its commitment to cleaning up its act. A series of feel-good ads this year showcased a variety of people straight from central casting saying “I believe in…Clean Coal. America’s Power.” These ads were sponsored by the American Council for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), an industry group comprised of 48 coal and utility companies. ACCCE spent at least $45 million on advertising this year to convince Americans that coal is a clean panacea to the world’s problems.

Despite the ads’ claims, an analysis by the Center of American Progress determined that ACCCE’s companies spend relatively few dollars conducting research on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), the experimental but promising technology that would allow power plants to capture 85 percent or more of their carbon dioxide emissions and permanently store them underground in geological formations. CAP’s analysis found that the 48 ACCCE companies made a combined profit of $57 billion in 2007 while investing over several years only $3.5 billion in CCS research.


ACCCE companies combined made $17 in 2007 profits for every $1 invested in CCS research over several years. This is a very generous estimate, because the analysis includes several projects that haven’t yet begun. Nonetheless, the research funding over a number of years is dwarfed by the profits for a single year. The 18 CCS projects by ACCCE companies have a lifetime cost of $5.7 billion, or one-tenth of the ACCCE companies’ profits in 2007 alone. Of this total cost, the ACCCE companies would eventually spend $3.5 billion on these projects, based on our analysis of publicly available data. The Department of Energy would provide an additional $1.9 billion. [CAP, 12/22/08]

With such relatively small investments in CCS research, it’s no wonder that it may take many years to develop and commercialize the technology. The lack of investment reinforces the notion that the real purpose of the clean coal campaign is to postpone requirements to reduce emissions.

“Clean coal” is misleading industry shorthand for advanced coal technologies that reduce coal’s environmental and health impact. Technology to reduce global warming pollution from coal-fired power plants — the most critical “clean coal technology” — is still experimental. Yet the coal mining and electric utility industries spent over $125 million combined in the first nine months of 2008 to lobby Congress to delay global warming pollution reductions until advanced coal technology is ready.

ACCCE’s lead spokesperson Joe Lucas has responded defensively to criticism of their “clean coal” propaganda by claiming the critics oppose technology development:

For those Monday morning quarterbacks who suggest that the coal industry should put more money behind the research and development of advanced carbon capture and storage technologies (instead of advertising), I say this — what have they done lately? Most of these groups have a long-standing record of opposing funding for cost-shared projects to bring new advanced technologies to the marketplace.

In fact, the Center for American Progress is able to separate policy from public relations. We have urged federal investment in CCS, including in the 2009 economic stimulus and recovery package. CAP also supported a major demonstration project blocked by the Bush administration. Unlike ACCCE, however, we do not believe that the adoption of binding domestic greenhouse gas reductions requirements should wait until the development and commercialization of CCS. A cap and trade program to reduce greenhouse gases would actually speed the development of CCS by creating a market for the technology.

Read the full report, “The Clean Coal Smoke Screen.”

Digg it!


Politico‘s Erica Lovley reports that Joe Lucas is not pleased with our findings, claiming that ACCCE companies have “invested more than $50 billion in emission-reducing technology over the past 30 years and currently has more than 80 projects on clean coal technology underway.”

That $50 billion over 30 years (less than one year of profits) was spent to reduce emissions of pollutants they are required by law to remove — the soot, acid rain, and smog-causing pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act. Only a small fraction, as our report found, is spent trying to remove greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration bent to the will of the industry and has ignored the Supreme Court mandate to set regulations for greenhouse emissions. The industry’s record is one of investment in advanced coal technology only after fighting for years to delay and weaken efforts to require clean up. And every time, the cost to comply with regulations has been far less than industry claims, as the new research leads to gains in efficiency and competitiveness.

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