Public Comment

The Debate Over ‘Clean Coal’

By Jack Bragen
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:19:00 PM

There has been a media campaign in the past year espousing the misnomer that there is such a thing as “clean coal.” In recent months, there has been a counter campaign from environmentalists that ridicules and disputes the myth. Then, the coal corporations found that sound bite of an Obama campaign speech in which Obama promotes the idea that “we can do it” with “clean coal.” 

Of course, nobody wants to argue with President Obama. That’s why the coal corporations believe they have trumped the anti clean coal movement through the Obama sound bite. 

However, I believe that in this case, President Obama was mistaken in believing there is such a thing as clean coal. I have a scientific explanation that follows: 

When we use fossil fuels, whether it is coal, crude oil or natural gas, we are taking carbon from the ground (that was deposited there a long time ago) and we are introducing this carbon into our atmosphere. When fossil fuels from the ground are burned, it means that they are chemically combined with oxygen from our air, and this becomes carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Carbon + Oxygen = CO and CO2. 

In the best-case scenario, the carbon from the ground is burned very efficiently so that there is very little carbon monoxide and a little more of the less harmful carbon dioxide. 

However, when you burn fossil fuels, you can’t avoid robbing our atmosphere of some of its oxygen. This is true especially if one were to capture and store the carbon dioxide. This is because of the fact that that carbon dioxide that got made during combustion contains oxygen from our atmosphere. 

When you store that CO2, you are preventing plant life on the planet from converting it back to oxygen and plant material. Plant growth, which contains carbon, is the original substance that became fossil fuels in our prehistory. 

When you take that carbon from the ground and introduce it into our atmosphere, it is like going backward in time. Our atmosphere will start to resemble what it was like during the age of the dinosaurs. It was a denser, warmer atmosphere with lush vegetation. It would mean a major change in our climate. It would be unsuitable for many people and many of today’s species. 

I am under the impression that capture and storage of CO2 was merely hypothetical and was used in the coal commercials to fool the public into believing there was no pollution. If you actually did capture and store the CO2, there would be less oxygen in our atmosphere and some of us would have difficulty breathing. If you didn’t store it, we would get the classic “greenhouse effect,” in which our climate gets warmer. 

Clean coal might refer in fact to coal in which the cancer causing soot is captured. This would be “less dirty coal.” When burning coal, it is possible to capture the solid particles that cause lung cancer for a lot of people. However, the coal miners would still be exposed. And we would continue to periodically have tragic accidents when the brave coal miners are in the process of getting that coal for us. 

When you burn vegetable oil or alcohol derived from crops, you do not increase carbon in the atmosphere because you are reintroducing carbon that already existed in our current ecosystem. The crops when they grew took CO2 from the atmosphere to grow, and when you burn them as fuels it just puts it back. There is no net change in the amount of carbon in the system. The difference with biofuels isn’t that they don’t introduce CO2; they do. The difference is that when the biofuels were produced, in the growing process, the same amount of carbon is removed from the atmosphere. When these same crops are grown, oxygen also gets put back into the atmosphere. 

The above explanation is merely high-school level science. It isn’t at the level of rocket science. 

So, I say it is OK to disagree with Obama on this one point, and I hope that the President will at some point acknowledge this mistake. Clean coal is a made up fantasy used to promote the use of fossil fuels and to prevent competition from “green energy.” 


Jack Bragen is a Martinez resident.