Special interests debate likelihood of "clean coal" in Missouri

Saturday, November 21, 2009 | 5:32 p.m. CST; updated 9:10 a.m. CST, Tuesday, December 8, 2009
MU students promoting the Sierra Club Coal Free Campus Campaign put on a demonstration at Speaker Circle on Wednesday, Sept. 16, to educate listeners on the amount of coal the MU campus uses. The group displayed the amount of coal that the MU campus burns every second and said that last year MU burned 48,000 tons of coal.

COLUMBIA — Missouri is more than 80 percent coal dependent — or sixth in the nation in coal use — according to the National Mining Association.

The combustion of coal adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere per unit of heat energy than does the combustion of other fossil fuels, according to a report published in 1994 by the Energy Information Administration.


The Mountaineer facility recently became the first major power plant to capture and store some of its carbon emissions, Joe Lucas said.

As part of a project combined with the U.S. Department of Energy, the Mountaineer power plant in New Haven, W.V., recently became the first commercial power plant to capture and store a significant portion of its carbon emissions.

The process begins with capturing CO2, injecting it into the ground and using a solution to help absorb the CO2 once it's underground. After that, it's pressurized, heated and stored underground as a liquid.

American Electric Power, which owns the Mountaineer plant, has reportedly applied for more than $330 million federal stimulus money to expand the project.

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So, what if there were a way to clean up coal?

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an organization that includes members of the coal industry, thinks carbon sequestration — or "clean coal" technology — is that way.

"Technology is an evolutionary thing," said Joe Lucas, senior vice president of communications for ACCCE. "It allows us to use coal in a responsible way."

Carbon sequestration involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions produced during coal combustion and permanently storing the gases underground.

But at least one risk assessment study found potential hazards from geological carbon sequestration. The study, conducted by the Berkeley Lab, found that "carbon sequestration will be neither perfectly effective nor risk free."

The National Energy Technology Lab describes carbon storage as two basic processes:

  • Capturing CO2 emitted from power plants.
  • Injecting and storing that carbon in underground formations, where it is monitored to ensure the gases remain underground permanently.

"When I was a kid, I was always told when you take something, you put it back where it came from," Lucas said. "That's what we're doing ... we're putting the coal back where it came from."

But opponents reject carbon capture and sequestration as a plausible alternative, citing possible ecological consequences.

The Berkeley study found that carbon capture and storage could potentially create economic, ecological and biological health-related hazards, including:

  • "Injury, death or ecosystem damage caused by exposure to harmful levels of CO2;"
  • "Damage to groundwater resources through direct contamination with CO2, or contamination by leaching of toxic material from surrounding rock, due to acidification of water by dissolved CO2;"
  • "Damage to mineral resources through (a) contamination of natural gas or oil by CO2, (b) pressure‐induced migration of mobile fossil fuels in a way that complicates extraction or renders it infeasible, (c) sorption of CO2 into coal, or (d) alteration of economically important ores, minerals, gravels, etc., by CO2 or by acidified water;" and
  • "Induced or enhanced seismicity due to increased fluid pressure deep underground."

The risks of these hazards cannot be completely determined; they depend upon the sites used for sequestration, pipeline technologies and operating practices to detect and fix leaks, the report stated.

Additionally, gradual leakage of stored CO2 could allow buildup in topographic depressions or enclosures like basements, the report stated.

In September, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that $12.7 million will fund 43 projects for geological sequestration training and research projects, according to its official Web site. Among those recipients is Missouri State University in Springfield.

In June, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 met approval in the U.S. House. The legislation seeks regulations on carbon capture and sequestration. While the debate over carbon sequestration has been recently revived as part of the discussion of "clean coal," the concept is not new.

Carbon dioxide, as well as other gases, has been injected into oil reservoirs in the earth for years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Citing a 2006 assessment, the department said processes like that create pressure in the areas surrounding an oil reservoir and push dispersed oil back to the area under a production wellbore; this could potentially recover 89 billion barrels of stranded oil in 10 U.S. regions.

According to the same assessment, however, Missouri is not within one of the regions where stranded oil could be recovered.

National environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have come out in strong opposition to "clean coal." Locally, Sierra Club members have protested the burning of coal in all forms at MU.  MU Assistant Professor of Geography Larry Brown spoke at a recent demonstration.

"Just two phrases I think need to be etched into our mind. One is, 'Coal is dirty, that's the bottom line,'" Brown said, followed by applause. "But the other is much more difficult because that means: 'Change of lifestyle.'"

Brown ended his speech with an impassioned call for alternative energy, citing wind and solar energy as distinct possibilities.

"We can get beyond (coal)," he said. "We can go through the withdrawal processes, go into the social therapy that we need to get off our coal addiction and find something else that in the long run is far more healthful to our life, to the ecology of the planet and also in terms of our economy."

In an interview after the event, Brown said that, as a geologist, he is worried about the damaging effects of coal on the earth.

Chelsea Maltagliati, an MU junior and member of the Mizzou College Republicans, attended the event where Brown spoke. She said she was concerned about the economic impact of taxing carbon emissions.

"People say they don't want coal, but they don't offer any solution other than solar panels and wind energy, which in theory sounds great," she said. 

Maltagliati disagreed with the taxes outlined in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 — or Waxman-Markey bill — which mandates that greenhouse gas emissions be reduced by 17 percent by 2020.

The bill has been set aside during Congress' health care reform debate and has yet to reach the Senate. If that happens, it could be a tug-of-war between economy and ecology.

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Marie Fischer November 22, 2009 | 2:29 p.m.

The clean energy bill would not require a "tug-of-war between economy and ecology." All the studies of this bill done by non-partisan, reliable sources (the Congressional Budget Offce, EPA, and Energy Information Administration) indicate it would cost the average American about three to four dollars a month.

Here's the CBO report:

Here's the EIA report:

Another way to look at it: we spend $1 billion a day on foreign oil, mostly purchased from countries with anti-American interests who put our national security at risk, when we could be investing that money into creating jobs and finding safer energy options at home. The clean energy bill is expected to help create millions of new jobs, including at least 35,000 in Missouri alone (based on a study done by the University of Massachusetts). And household energy costs are expected to be lower under the bill (again based on CBO & EIA analysis) because of energy efficiency and conservation measures it encourages. Homeowners, businesses, and government institutions could save thousands through tax incentives that would make efficiency updates easier and more affordable.

As for the coal debate, our first priority should be investing in clean energy options that don't have the same side effects as coal. Clean coal may turn out to be a workable option, but why put all our eggs in one basket? If we invest in a mix of clean energy sources, we'll be protected in the event of a coal, oil, or gas price spike in the market.

I congratulate the Missouri students who are calling for clean energy and emissions reductions. Claire McCaskill and Kit Bond should pay attention to these constituents and vote in favor of the Senate clean energy bill.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 22, 2009 | 6:52 p.m.

The only fossil fuel for which we have considerable domestic reserves is coal. This suggests that coal as a fuel for combustion will need to be part of our energy mix for years to come.

Is everyone aware that the United States exports coal? How much petroleum do we export? How much natural gas?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 23, 2009 | 3:24 a.m.

We export a little petroleum from Alaska to Japan, but we're very much of a net importer of petroleum, and we're the only oil importing nation that doesn't act like we are. Other importers have high fuel taxes to reduce consumption, and most of them use half the energy per capita that we do.

There's a lot we can do to use less energy, but people have to choose to do it. As long as electricity is cheap and reliable, it's easier just to pay the few extra dollars a month rather than replacing the fridge, or insulating the attic.

80% of energy use is a choice. Whereever our electricity comes from, choosing to use less of it is the only option that works immediately, and doesn't cost anything for more power plants and transmission lines.


(Report Comment)
Paul Rolfe November 30, 2009 | 12:40 a.m.

I'll preface by saying that investing in clean coal is far inferior to actual clean technologies such as geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass.
There is a technology that's been around since the 80's called integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC). This heats coal into a gas cooking off impurities and this gas then burns about as cleanly as natural gas and 10 percent more efficiently than conventional coal plants. The carbon and other various pollutants can be captured more easily this way too. The combination of sequestration and IGCC is a feasible possibility.

However, only a handful of coal plants are built as IGCC plants. Energy companies gain nothing by implementing these technologies, the benefits go to the public not the shareholders, and so as long as low standards on emissions are in place the same old polluting power plants will continue to be built. In the long term, taking into account global warming and the imminent CO2 limits coming in the next few years, IGCC is the fiscally responsible thing too.

But power and coal companies are not concerned with the long term. They prefer to appear like they are doing something to limit emissions and then build more coal fired plants with technology from the 70's.

Everyone should take a peak at a book called "Big Coal" by Jeff Goodell. It's well researched and gives a huge insight into America's and the world's dependence on coal.

(Report Comment)

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