Have you ever heard of “clean coal?” Based on what was said during the second presidential debate last night, Donald Trump has. In a typically garbled response to a question about energy, this ill-informed, lurking menace claimed that this mysterious substance should be a major focus of any future American energy infrastructure.
Clean coal is an oxymoron, like “civil war” or “deafening silence.” Coal is anything but clean – it’s the most carbon-rich fossil fuel there is, actually, producing nearly twice as much carbon dioxide during combustion as natural gas. Despite this, the Republican Party recently declared coal to be an “abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.”
All of the above is roughly true – except, of course, the “clean” part. The cleanliness of the compacted remnants of plants and dinosaurs isn’t really what proponents of coal are talking about here. Instead, they have concluded that carbon capture technology is so effective nowadays that barely any of the carbon dioxide produced by burning coal escapes into the atmosphere.
Let’s just ignore the fact that this language is awfully similar to the type used by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a powerful lobby group in cahoots with plenty of US lawmakers. Let’s also brush over the fact that a striking number of Republicans, Republican voters – and Trump himself, of course – think climate change is a myth, a hoax, or a global conspiracy.
Carbon capture technology is indeed real. However, it’s a band-aid to the looming threat of climate change, not a magical silver bullet. It’s not fixing the core problem at all.
Although “scrubbers” attached to the exhaust pipes of coal-fired power plants that prevent carbon dioxide leeching into the outside world do exist and are being trialed, the technology is still fairly primitive and is far from being widespread. Almost all of the carbon dioxide produced by burning coal does indeed make its way into our planet’s atmosphere.
Really, clean coal should be termed “ever-so-slightly-less filthy coal,” but that clearly doesn’t have the political punch that the coal industry would like it to have. There’s plenty more in coal other than carbon, and the particulate matter that also makes its way into people’s lungs ends up killing millions of people every single year.
See this? This isn't clean – at all. Vyacheslav Svetlichnyy/Shutterstock