Energy and Global Warming News for April 21: Coal is [cough, cough] clean

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Center for Public Integrity:  The ‘Clean Coal’ Lobbying Blitz

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) spent more last year–$9.95 million–than any other group solely dedicated to climate lobbying.  ACCCE is “a collection of 48 mining, rail, manufacturing, and power-generating companies with an annual budget of more than $45 million,” as this terrific article explains.

‘Propaganda war’ over coal escalates ahead of Hill climate debate

This is an important week for legislative efforts to preserve a livable climate. The nation’s capital is inundated with arguments pitting those proposing energy and global warming legislation against proponents of “clean coal,” an oxymoron, which is at least 10 years from being feasibly and affordably scalable, if not 20 or more (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“).  E&E News has more:

Ads displayed at Washington subway stops and airing on national television call “clean coal” a myth. Tell that to President Obama, his Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress.

Five months into an advertising war on coal, the phrase “clean coal” not only endures, it has become political shorthand. Everyone — from Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — refers to clean coal or clean coal technology. Environmentalists call the ‘clean coal’ rhetoric dangerous, saying it creates complacency about the need to move toward true carbon-free energy. Policymakers, environmentalists say, know that coal remains one of the most polluting sources of energy.

The word war over coal is escalating. There are billions of dollars at stake, as Congress moves toward historic legislation that could decide winners and losers in the green energy economy. Already, there are signs of small victories by the coal camp.

“To a certain extent, it is a propaganda war,” said Kenneth Green, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “The coal industry believes the environmental community wants to put it out of business. The environmental groups are afraid the clean coal concept is appealing enough to lawmakers, it will stymie their progress in getting rid of coal.”

Coal’s boosters and its critics are vying to shape public perception about the fuel. For coal, winning the battle could mean securing billions of dollars for years to come. Coal companies want federal money for research on removing and sequestering carbon emissions and to preserve their position as dominant players in the United States’ energy supply. Meanwhile, environmentalists are hungry to minimize the role of polluting fossil fuels and capture federal money for wind, solar, other renewable power sources and conservation efforts.

Both sides are spending tens of millions of dollars in the fight.

A coalition of coal backers spent about $38 million on advertising last year and another $9.9 million on lobbying. That compares with the $93,000 spent annually on lobbying from 2002 through 2007.

Groups that say “clean coal” is not economically viable have also escalated their efforts. After coal supporters ran television ads last fall, a coalition of environmental groups joined with Vice President Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and started the Reality Coalition. It began airing ads declaring, “There’s no such thing as clean coal.” That slogan is based on the fact that no commercial-scale plant exists that removes and sequesters carbon emissions from coal.

E&E Daily (Subs. Req’d)

Chu backs renewable credits, eschews carbon tax

The best way to encourage the development of renewable energy is for the government to promise stable, long-term tax credits, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a Q&A with the New York Times.

Chu said a decade-long commitment to tax credits would prompt long-term investments as they had in Europe.

But when asked about the idea of imposing a carbon tax, a prospect favored by many environmentalists, he rejected it. “Well, we’re not talking about a carbon tax,” he said. “President Obama and I are not talking about a carbon tax.”

New York Times

Sprinting for Green Stimulus Dollars

The chase for stimulus dollars now includes a sprint up Capitol Hill, quite literally.

The stimulus package has $2.5 billion for batteries and hybrids, and one of the many companies seeking a slice, AFS Trinity, arrived in Washington on Sunday with two Saturn Vue S.U.V.’s “” “crossover” vehicles that General Motors sells as hybrids, but which AFS Trinity has extensively modified as plug-in hybrids.

New York Times

Chinese Clean Coal Will Be Critical, a Report Says

Coal accounts for 70 percent of China’s energy supply, and coal production in the country “” where one new coal-fired power plant is built, on average, every week “” provides more energy than crude oil production from the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, China passed the United States as the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter in 2007, and by 2020, China’s energy consumption could easily double.

How then, to control Chinese “” and hence global “” carbon emissions?

A new study by the International Energy Agency published today (PDF) offers a few ideas wrapped up in a sobering package.

The main message is simple enough: “China will need to decide for itself how to proceed,” the report says, “but its actions, more than those of any other country, will shape the global approach to the cleaner use of coal that is urgently needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

Science Daily

Carbon Dioxide Snatched From The Air

It’s the reason why chemists envy green plants: by using photosynthesis, plants can easily fix the carbon dioxide that is so plentiful in air to make biomass, or organic compounds. Chemists would also like to be able to simply produce carbon compounds out of CO2 from air. In contrast to the usual sources of carbon used today””fossil fuels and natural gas””carbon dioxide is a renewable resource and an environmentally friendly chemical reagent.

Unfortunately, its carbon-oxygen bonds are too strong to be broken easily. Researchers working with Yugen Zhang and Jackie Y. Ying at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore have now developed a novel reaction scheme by which CO2 can be efficiently converted into methanol under very mild conditions. As reported in the journal Angewandte Chemie, it is based on an N-heterocyclic carbene catalyst and a silane as the reducing agent.

Science Daily

Damage To Forests From Climate Change Could Cost The Planet Its Major Keeper Of Greenhouse Gases, Study Warns

The critical role of forests as massive ‘sinks’ for absorbing greenhouse gases is ‘at risk of being lost entirely’ to climate change-induced environmental stresses that threaten to damage and even decimate forests worldwide, according to a new report released April 17. The report will be formally presented at the next session of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) taking place 20 April-1 May 2009 at the UN Headquarters in New York City.

Cyclones Spurt Water Into Stratosphere, Feeding Global Warming

Scientists at Harvard University have found that tropical cyclones readily inject ice far into the stratosphere, possibly feeding global warming.

Study: Shortages likely on Colorado River by 2050

If the West continues to heat up and dry out, odds increase that the mighty Colorado River won’t be able to deliver all the water that’s been promised to millions who rely on it for their homes, farms and businesses, according to a new study.

Less runoff the snow and rain that fortify the 1,400-mile river caused by human-induced climate change could mean that by 2050 the Colorado won’t be able to provide all of its allocated water 60 percent to 90 percent of the time, according to two climate researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego.

The more parched the landscape, the more difficult the choices will be for those with dibs on the Colorado’s water and those in charge of divvying it up, said Tim Barnett, lead author of the study.

“The dry year scenarios in the future are going to be absolutely brutal,” he said.

UK Guardian

Climate change will overload humanitarian system, warns Oxfam

The number of people affected by extreme weather has doubled in 30 years and is expected to reach 375 million a year by 2015. Damage done to Burma’s largest city, Yangon, after tropical cyclone Nargis tore through swaths of the country. Oxfam is calling for a fundamental review of the humanitarian aid system.

Emergency organisations could be overwhelmed within seven years by the rising number of people in poor countries affected by floods, droughts, heatwaves, wild fires, storms, landslides and other climate hazards.

Analysis by Oxfam International of the 6,500 climate-related disasters recorded since 1980 show that the numbers of people affected by extreme weather events, many of which are linked to climate change, has doubled in just 30 years and is expected to increase a further 54% to more than 375 million people a year on average by 2015. The figure does not include people hit by other disasters such as wars, earthquakes and volcanoes.

Compiled by Max Luken and Carlin Rosengarten

18 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for April 21: Coal is [cough, cough] clean

  1. Pat Richards says:

    I’ve been concerned with atmospheric pollution for the past 40 years. They have been telling me for those past 40 years that “clean coal is just around the corner.” They’ve been claiming that “pilot plants are already running” for 40 years. They’ve been stating that “promising new research and technologies will enable the wide scale adoption of clean coal to generate America’s clean power well into the next century” for the past 40 years.

    The fact that people still listen to and believe these lies after hearing them over and over again for decades totally blows my mind.

  2. ZS says:

    Today’s NYT, courtesy of John Tierney, advises…

    Use Energy, Get Rich and Save the Planet

    Curiously, it fails to mention anything about the urgency of reducing emissions in an attempt to avoid triggering amplifying carbon feedback loops.

    The tendency of humanity to find ANY excuse to preserve the status quo is amazing.

  3. Stuart says:

    Is this for real? If it can be scaled up then our climate is toast because the politicians will jump all over it.

    Lab finds new method to turn biomass into gasoline

  4. David says:

    In some countries, the government runs the industries; in America, Big Business runs the government. I hope that Obama and the congressional Democrats will change that problem, and this is their chance.

  5. Leland Palmer says:

    Well, “clean coal” is bogus, I think. At best, it is carbon neutral, and in practice it is somewhat carbon positive. Digging or pumping more fossil fuels out of the ground at this point makes no sense to me.

    The technology of clean coal, applied to biomass or biocarbon, and coupled with massive replanting and fire protection efforts, can produce carbon negative energy production, which could have a huge, decisive impact on the climate crisis, as a few authors including Read and the website Biopact have been advocating for years.

    Holistic greenhouse gas management:
    mitigating the threat of abrupt climate change in the next few decades.
    With reviewers comments and author rejoinders
    P. Read* and A. Parshotam**

    Shortly afterwards the notion of linking Bio-Energy to CO2 Sequestration (BECS) was announced4 [20].

    BECS constitutes a negative emissions energy system in which the more bioenergy products are consumed, the less CO2 remains in the atmosphere. Using revenues from bioenergy product sales to pay both for the acquisition and processing of biomass raw material and for the safe disposal of CO2 waste product, BECS actively pumps CO2 out of the atmosphere. Done on a sufficiently large scale, this can result in a reduction in atmospheric CO2 levels below the asymptotic path mentioned above [21]. It may be noted that a negative emissions energy system is a sub-set of the negative emissions systems that yield economic benefits. These include quasi-permanent storage of carbon in timber artefacts or in soil, e.g. through bio-char soil amendment. In turn, a larger set includes systems that yield no economic benefit such as ‘pickling logs’ and the direct capture of CO2 from the air and its storage underground [22].

    The weak link is of course carbon capture and storage. I think we ought to do this anyway, because the risks of runaway climate change far outweigh the risks from CCS. I think we need to use CCS, until we develop the ability to cheaply store carbon as a mineral carbonate.

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    The cleanest coal and the most secure and (probably) cheapest form of CCS have the same solution: Leave the coal in the ground instead of digging it up and turning it into heat and lots of nasty by products.

  7. Harrier says:

    That process of converting CO2 into methanol sounds amazing. The question is how complicated (and energy-intensive) the manufacture of that catalyst is.

  8. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Lou Grinzo-

    No, just leaving the coal in the ground is carbon neutral, and does not produce any energy. Certainly, leave the coal in the ground. But it’s looking like we are actually going to have to actively pump CO2 out of the air and into the ground, to turn this runaway feedback climate crisis around.

    What we need are carbon negative forms of energy production, and one form of this would be to transform existing coal fired power plants to biomass/biocarbon, oxyfuel combustion, and CCS, while developing CO2 sequestration as a carbonate on an emergency basis.

    No other plan that I know of could use existing power plants, and actively pump carbon back underground, while generating useful power, displacing fossil fuels, helping to control wildfires, and minimizing methane production from landfills at the same time.

    Nobody likes CCS. I don’t like CCS. I’m afraid we will have to use biocarbon/CCS to save the biosphere, and that we will hesitate too long to use it.

  9. Stuart says:

    Has anyone had a chance to look at the link from yahoo news I posted above on biomass produced gasoline? If the process is legit then goodbye peak oil, but I don’t know if this is another cold fusion pipe dream. Also would biomass produced gasoline be more carbon neutral?

    [JR: Could be part of the solution if it proves workable, affordable, and scalable. Announcements like these are currently dime a dozen. Seems like a complicated process but making gasoline rather than ethanol is obviously a much better idea. Still, biomass is not a very good way of converting solar energy into moving a vehicle. Presumably it would be carbon neutral.]

  10. David B. Benson says:

    Stuart — In principle that method is carbon neutral. In the near term, only nearly so. I disagree with Joe Romm about the virtues of biomass as energy solutions; in the right setting these can be the preferred solutions, although certainly won’t be the sole energy source. In this case (if it scales up) it avoids making a dramatic leap into new transportation technologies.

    The main difficulty for all forms of biofuels is the lack of water. For some algae, sea water is required and then the problem is lack of suitable sea coast; otherwise the water has to be pumped inland.

  11. Phil Eisner says:

    Using the precious resources, fresh water and arable land, to make fuel for automobiles is not a solution to any problem. Rather it is an effort to bankrupt the 9-billion people soon to populate our planet.

    CO2 is toxic at >5% concentration in air. Why are we so sure that pumping CO2 into the ground is good? Will it stay there? I have asked these questions of coal experts at lectures I have attended and not received answers I trust. Earthquakes, underground water movements, etc., make me nervous. This technology of underground sequestration has only recently been considered seriously and remains untested.

  12. Leland Palmer says:

    I asked my wife if people would go for CCS, and she said, no, not really. She said that most people would be afraid that the CO2 would leak out.

    That appears to be the case. People have a gut reaction to CCS, and that reaction is most often negative.

    But oil companies have been quietly using deep injection of CO2 for secondary recovery of oil from oil fields for years. Several projects around the world are currently pumping fairly large amounts of CO2 into geological deposits, without apparent bad effects, at least yet.

    If the CO2 comes from biomass, leakage into the air is not much of a problem, because that’s where the CO2 came from in the first place. So the process would still be carbon negative, just a little less so, depending on the leakage.

    I agree that burning fossil fuels and then deep injecting the CO2 is a bad idea- it takes carbon out of the ground, and then puts most of it back into the ground in a less stable form.

    But taking biomass carbon and putting it into the ground is completely different; this actually transfers carbon from the air to the ground, and if some of it leaks, well that’s better than the “100% leakage” we would get from just burning the biomass. So even if leakage occurs, biomass/CCS is still carbon negative, just less so than if there were no leakage.

    CCS should be a temporary measure, until we can develop economic geological sequestration as a carbonate. Deep injection of CO2 should be reserved strictly for biomass derived carbon, and should NOT be used for secondary oil recovery.

    I also think the coal plants should be seized, and forcibly converted, to take any profit motive out of this picture.

    I think we have to realize that there are tradeoffs, and relative risks involved here. We have to more intensively manage the forests to keep them from burning, We have to harvest biomass from the forests, even though we don’t want to. We have to get our hands dirty seizing the coal plants. We have to deep inject CO2, even though we don’t want to.

    We should massively replant the forests, and plant new forests, even as we harvest them for biomass, of course.

    Eventually, we may be forced to a decision: do we want runaway global warming or do we want biomass/CCS? My only worry is that by the time we are forced to this decision, it will be too late to stop runaway global warming, even with biomass/CCS.

    Biomass/CCS at least gives us some breathing room, decades perhaps, to develop carbon sequestration by mineral carbonation.

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Phil Eisner & Leland Palmer — CO2 is heavier than air, so tends to stay down. CO2 sequestered in deep saline formations will stay there since the CO2 has a chemical affinity for other chemicals there; just dfon’t put in too much in any one place. CO2 injected under the deep ocean floor will stay there by simple pressure alone; it is a dense liquid at those pressures.

    According to a recent FAO report, about 20–30% of land area is not in current production (not even pasturage or forested). These are typically degraded, former agricultural lands. Such are well suited to a variety of biofuel crops, especially those not requiring irrigation. There is plenty of room for both food and fuel.

  14. Stuart says:

    Thanks for the info everyone, I knew this would be the place to ask. I will keep my eyes on this.

  15. “Clean coal” is like “the victory of freedom” and other Bush delusional bumper sticker arguments. It’s a hope, not a plan, and given the current state of CO2 capture and storage it is not even a likely hope.

    The hope of clean coal is certainly worth pursuing, however, because coal is absolutely necessary for reliable electricity, at least in the next 20 years, which is all the time we have to make a difference.

    The Green Team looks like a bunch of grinches when they pitch austerity for the US and China. Not gonna happen.

  16. Leland Palmer says:

    It might be possible to do truly clean coal, but at this point I still think it is a bad idea.

    Truly clean coal would involve a closed loop oxyfuel process, in which pollutants and contaminants in the coal end up in the CO2 stream. Jupiter Oxygen Corporation has patents on this, available on Google Patents.

    If this CO2 was sequestered by mineral carbonation, and ended up as a carbonate, and if all of the lead and mercury and so on were effectively immobilized in that carbonate, then this would constitute truly clean coal combustion.

    Clean coal mining is another question, and I doubt that truly clean coal mining is possible.

    We need to turn away from coal, and just leave it in the ground. If we need to turn away from capitalism to socialism in order to do this, that’s what we will have to do, in order to survive.

    The CCS technology of “clean coal” though, applied to biocarbon, is actually the best solution to the entire climate crisis, I believe.

    Here’s a Canadian company producing biocarbon from insect killed trees:

    The graph in this article shows that the fuel density of biocarbon (carbonized biomass) is equal to, or slightly greater than coal. This makes biocarbon as transportable as coal.

    What I envision is small satellite plants, hooked to the electrical grid, which transform biomass into biocarbon. Some useful energy is produced in this step. The resulting gases from this carbonization process could be burned to produce some electricity, and that electricity dumped into the grid.

    The biocarbon would be shipped from these small satellite plants to coal fired power plants, by rail, mostly. It might also be possible to construct “biocarbon log” pipelines to transport massive amounts of biocarbon long distances to the coal plants. Finally, it might be possible to transport biomass as carbon monoxide, piped hundreds of miles to coal plants.

    Once at the coal fired power plants, biocarbon could be burned just like coal.

    The coal fired powerplants could be converted to oxyfuel combustion, one form of carbon capture, and the one I favor because it has higher Carnot efficiency than air combustion.

    The resulting nearly pure stream of CO2 could be deep injected into the earth.

    Long term, we need to develop carbon sequestration by mineral carbonation, and permanently transform the CO2 into carbonate minerals.

    If we did this worldwide and immediately, we could start putting something like 5 billion tons of carbon per year back underground.

    At this rate, it would take 60 years to undo the damage caused by the industrial revolution.

  17. The SOx in the CO2 stream could be cracked, along with CO2, using energy from renewables such as wind and solar. The defect of renewables is that they are intermittent, so they cannot be used for baseload power in quantities larger than 20% lest they impair grid reliability. So wind power goes to waste at night, when it is most abundant, because there is already lots of coal power in the spinning reserve.

    Why not use wind to crack coal emissions? O2 for oxyfuel combustion would be one useful product, and another might be carbon nanotubes. CO2 would effectively serve as a storage medium for wind energy.