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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

“Clean” Coal? Yeah, Not So Much.

By Phil Plait
lump of coal

If you thought the upcoming GOP national convention was going to be anything other than a look into a parallel dimension, then here’s a taste of what to expect. On Monday, the Republican National Committee had a hearing to work out the wording for the GOP platform, their list of beliefs and goals supported by the party and its members.

During these hearings, one of the topics was the use of coal. David Barton, a delegate from Texas, had an edit he wanted to make to a sentence in the platform. You can watch the clip here, but this is the key statement:

I would insert the adjective “clean” along with coal particularly because [of] the technology we have now. So, “the Democrat party does not understand that coal is an abundant clean affordable reliable domestic energy resource.”

In a sense, Barton is right: The Democratic Party*doesn’t understand that, because it’s utter baloney. “Clean coal” is a myth, a marketing term. Coal isn’t clean. Not even close.

If you want to be honest, the term should be “cleaner coal,” or more accurately “somewhat less dirty coal.” Coal is one of the major sources of energy production in the U.S. (providing 33 percent of the total, comparable to natural gas). It gets burned, which turns water into steam, which drives turbines, which then generate electricity.

Coal has a lot of other things in it besides carbon, including mercury, sulfur and more. These pollutants get into the air and cause a lot of problems, including thousands of premature deaths every year. Scrubbing these toxins out of the coal is costly and very difficult, though new power plants do a better job at this than old ones.

But the elephant in the room is that carbon. Burn it and it combines with oxygen to make carbon dioxide, and this of course is a greenhouse gas. Humans put about 40 billion tons of CO2 into the air annually, far more than any natural source on the planet (including volcanoes). Because this is heating the Earth up and changing the climate, it’s important to figure out a way to capture the carbon and somehow store it to prevent it from getting into the air. This is called “carbon capture and sequestration,” or CCS.

The problem? The technology to do this doesn’t exist. Not in any real sense of the word, that is. There have been some pilot projects done, but they’ve managed only to scratch the surface of the vast amount of CO2 released.

Now, to be fair, I won’t say CCS is impossible. Perhaps, after a couple of decades, a few tens of billions of dollars invested and a few technological breakthroughs, it may become a reality.

But right now? No way.

All of this makes it pretty clear that what Barton was peddling in his interjection of the platform committee hearings was pure nonsense. Calling coal “clean” is just this side of a lie, and at best is horribly misleading. Adding that word to the platform is just another fairy tale substituted for science by the GOP.

head in the sand

I’ll note that Barton himself is a fervent climate change denier; he gave testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing in 2007 that is loaded with scientific errors. Even then we knew that much of what he stated in that testimony is flatly wrong. He misstates the role of aerosols in global warming (confusing it with their role in hurting the ozone layer), talks about global cooling and more. He has a colorful history with reality, too.

I’ll also note that the leader of the platform committee, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), is also a climate change denier. Because of course.

Once the Republicans finish hammering out their platform and put it online I’ll take a look at it, but you don’t need to be psychic to know what it will say about a lot of the issues. The party’s guiding principle has been the flat denial of reality for quite some time now—Donald Trump is like an anti–Nobel Prize they’ve won in that category—and it’s a sure thing that’s all we’ll see from them for a long time to come.

Tip o’ the bitumen to Climate Desk.

*Note Barton’s use of the phrase “Democrat party,” a term used specifically to make them sound bad. If someone uses it to start a sentence, you can be sure that the next thing they say would be useful as fertilizer.

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