Flanked by coal miners, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday rolling back regulations that have dogged coal executives but have also provided them a convenient scapegoat for layoffs and bankruptcies that had little connection to environmental rules.
Yet, even though coal barons admitted it wouldn’t happen, Trump vowed to bring coal roaring back, with just the stroke of his pen. Not only did this executive order mark the start of a second act for an anemic industry, Trump said that this time things would be different.
“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said. “We’re going to have clean coal, really clean coal.”
That deserves some examination. Can coal, by far the dirtiest fossil fuel, really be clean energy? Or is “clean coal,” as environmentalists have long said, a marketing myth purveyed by a struggling industry?
To start, it’s helpful to look at who uses the term. The phrase appears to spike in U.S. Google search results in presidential election years. “Clean coal” surged into the public vernacular in October 2008, one month before Barack Obama was first elected president. Use of the term spiked again in October 2012 and October 2016. The phrase was searched most heavily in major coal-producing states, such as West Virginia and Kentucky.
That’s in part because Obama himself made “clean coal” a cornerstone of his efforts to stem the worst effects of climate change while appealing to Coal Country voters. In 2010, he launched his first effort to, as The New York Times put it, “prove that ‘clean coal’ was not an oxymoron.”
Construction began on a first-of-its-kind power plant in Kemper County, Mississippi, that promised to produce cleaner energy by combining one technology to turn coal into pressurized gas and another to capture and store carbon emissions underground, preventing them from entering the atmosphere and adding to global warming.
Five years later, the Kemper County Energy Facility, owned by the utility giant Southern Power, was $4.4 billion over budget and two years past deadline. Things got worse when, in July 2016, the Times reported that Southern executives misled state regulators and federal officials to secure billions in financial incentives, triggering an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Moreover, the Kemper Project had physical flaws: leaking gaskets, cracked ductwork and missing inspection records.
As the scandal-plagued project’s woes mounted, it became clear someone else would claim the title of the world’s first zero-emission coal plant.
The other U.S. attempt at clean coal would still not be that someone else.
In 2003, President George W. Bush launched FutureGen, an Illinois project to “design, construct, and operate a nominal 275-megawatt prototype plant that produces electricity and hydrogen with near-zero emissions.” By 2008, amid ballooning costs, the Department of Energy pulled funding for a project that had become known as “NeverGen.”
A year later, the Obama administration earmarked $1 billion in federal funds from the economic stimulus package to reboot the project, working with Illinois officials to raise an additional $1.7 billion.
By 2015, however, the project had stalled as engineers struggled to make the carbon capture-and-storage technology work. With the stimulus bill set to expire in September of that year, the Obama White House canceled the project.
A similar fate is playing out in Canada. In 2014, the country opened the world’s first carbon-capture coal plant in Saskatchewan. The $1.47 billion facility is already experiencing leaks and blowouts and is blamed for small earthquakes in the region as it pushes pressurized gases deep underground. Plus, the deal to build the plant was criticized as a massive subsidy to Canada’s oil industry.
The problem with the runaway costs of near-zero emission coal plants is that those expenses get baked into the price of the electricity they generate. As the price of natural gas and renewable energy falls, that makes “clean coal” a dubious bet.
“There is no such thing as ‘clean coal,’” Travis Nichols, a spokesman for the environmental giant Greenpeace, told The Huffington Post by email. “It’s a myth used by the industry to get taxpayer money in order to prop up a dying industry. It’s worse than pixie dust and hope, it’s coal dust and nope. Coal miners deserve a just transition, not snake oil and empty promises.”