Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

“Clean” coal’s dirty secrets

By Peter Montague

Watch Clean Coal and the PurGen Project to learn about the hare-brained scheme in Linden, NJ to make coal “clean.”

During the past 10 years, a worldwide scientific consensus has developed that global warming is real and mainly caused by humans burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas).

The obvious solution is to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. But if you’re in the fossil fuel business, that solution looks like an economic disaster.

So the fossil fuel companies and their biggest customers are looking for a get-out-of-jail free card, and they think they’ve found it: clean coal. Clean coal means capturing carbon dioxide (aka CO2, the main global warming gas), compressing it into a liquid, and burying it a mile below ground. This is called “carbon capture and sequestration” or CCS for short. CCS is the essence of “clean coal.”

That’s what they’re trying out in the ocean off New Jersey.

The coal companies are not the only ones who think “clean coal” is a great idea. There are experimental machines called “artificial trees” that can pull CO2 right out of the air. These machines are electric-powered and can run anywhere. So, if CCS works, the oil companies and the car companies will deploy thousands (perhaps millions) or “artificial trees” to pull CO2 out of the air, intending to bury it below ground. If this worked, they wouldn’t have to shift over to any of these newfangled electric cars or solar power plants. “Clean coal” would be a triumph for “business as usual.”

The railroads favor “clean coal” because 40% of all rail freight (by weight) is coal. The electric utilities favor “clean coal” because they’ve been burning coal for 150 years and they don’t want to change. So, we have a political juggernaut favoring “clean coal” — the coal, oil and natural gas industries, plus railroads, car companies and electric utilities. This is a lot of political muscle.

The only people standing in the way are ordinary citizens who are reluctant to allow CO2 burial beneath their homes and farms — and for good reason. CO2 is a colorless, odorless, invisible gas that is heavier than air. When released in concentrated form, CO2 forms an invisible puddle on the ground, which asphyxiates everything in its path, including plants, animals and humans.

In the U.S., landowners control the sub-surface rights — so “clean coal” projects must buy the right to bury CO2 beneath private property. If the buried CO2 were to leak sideways beneath neighboring property, or if it were to contaminate drinking water, lawsuits could arise.

But these problems would disappear if CO2 could be buried beneath the ocean. That is what has been proposed in Linden, NJ. A project called “PurGen” aims to build a 750 megawatt coal power plant that would capture 90% of its own CO2, plus gather CO2 from other nearby industrial sources, send it through a 100-mile-long pipeline out into the Atlantic Ocean, and then pump it a mile and a half below the ocean floor. The goal would be “permanent” burial of the CO2 beneath the ocean. But what if the CO2 leaks back out 50 years from now, warming the planet uncontrollably? Scientists working on behalf of the coal industry say that won’t happen. But what if they’re mistaken? Are they infallible?

Watch the 11-minute video and tell me what you think.