“Clean Coal” and the Campaigns

Despite centrality to election, first CCS coal plant fails to impress the press

When the world’s most powerful particle accelerator opened along the French-Swiss border last week, it drew reams of press. But it wasn’t the only controversial piece of technology to host a grand opening.

A day before, the first coal-burning power plant to feature fully integrated carbon-capture-and-storage (CCS) technology had opened in northeastern Germany. Unlike the accelerator, however, it received very little attention. The press should have done more. After all, they are both complex and unproven technologies with the potential for big payoff or big disappointment. Yet CCS is eminently more relevant to the lives of most people. Indeed, both Barack Obama and John McCain have promised Americans a future reliant on so-called “clean coal,” and governments around the world are banking on idea that CCS will become more widespread.

So why the silence? No matter what people say, size matters. The German plant is tiny, not only compared to the accelerator, but also to the much larger CCS plants and infrastructure that must be built for carbon storage to meaningfully reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions responsible for global warming. Furthermore, some environmentalists think that CCS is a bad idea, arguing that R&D should focus on renewable energy sources rather than on fossil fuels. Others say carbon dioxide will leak out of underground reservoirs and pose a safety hazard. And, as critics like Grist have pointed out, the term “clean coal” is largely an oxymoronic advertising gimmick. Still, many experts don’t see any realistic way for humans to phase out coal—the dirtiest, but cheapest fuel—without blowing the average consumer’s budget.

“Part of [the reason the German plant didn’t receive more press] is that there’s a certain amount of controversy around carbon sequestration,” said Klaus Lackner, a geophysicist and CCS expert at Columbia University. “People are nervous about it, so that may be affecting the way it’s being presented. Personally, I think we have no choice, and having somebody who really shows it can be done is an enormous step forward.”

In the July/August issue of CJR, Cristine Russell warned journalists about falling into the trap of “techno-optimism,” and, enormous step forward or not, CCS has many more steps to take. But these concerns shouldn’t have barred coverage of the first power plant to boast a fully integrated CCS system. To the contrary, the fact that “clean coal” has become a key issue in the U.S. presidential election should have made more journalists sit up and say, “Hey, what the sooty hell is going on over there?”

“It is a full-fledged pilot,” Lackner said. “At 40 megawatts, it’s a real plant. I mean, it’s not a big plant, but it’s not a toy in the laboratory either. It has the potential, if it works, to scale up to full size and then cookie-cut for lots of other places. I think it deserves more attention.”

To understand what the story was (and what it was not), one need only turn to two pieces by environment reporter Lewis Smith at The Times in London. (His was one of the only major papers to give the German CCS plant considerable attention, publishing an editorial in addition to Smith’s two articles.) The piece that demonstrates what the story was not was an analysis wondering whether CCS is “the ‘magic bullet’ of energy supply.” Smith notes that the German plant is “not expected to be perfect,” and the rest of the piece is good enough—but journalists must really avoid using terms like “magic bullet.” Even ardent supporters aren’t pitching it that way; they know that CCS will never abrogate the need for a diverse and renewable energy supply package.

Much better was Smith’s other article, a very interesting piece that examines the U.K.’s progress in developing CCS technology. The skinny is that “critics believe that Britain’s chance to dominate the sector is disappearing.” Given the fact that governments and industries around the globe are promising—and, indeed, banking on—the maturation of CCS, that should have been the angle for American journalists as well.

Like it or not, we’re going to be burning coal for some time to come and, ultimately, some CCS is better than no CCS. So the question is, if Barack Obama and John McCain believe so mightily in this technology, what do they think about this pilot plant in Germany? According to their respective Web sites, Obama wants to build give five commercial-scale plants and McCain would “commit $2 billion Annually to advancing clean coal technologies.”

That’s not enough information. Last year, the Department of Energy killed FutureGen, the domestic plan for a zero-emissions coal plant, when it ran way over budget. What are the candidates’ plans for avoiding a similar breakdown? Moreover, the campaigns aren’t the only outlets pushing CCS. Prime time election coverage features a non-stop repetition of ads touting “clean coal.” In June, BusinessWeek reported that the coal industry’s marketing and lobbying campaign totaled $40 million. The import is clear, the piece continues:

With coal-rich swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia critical to the Presidential race, both Barack Obama and John McCain have endorsed the idea that coal is well on its way to becoming a benign energy source. Obama’s primary campaign in Kentucky sent out flyers in May showing the smiling Democratic candidate, a coal barge, and the message “Barack Obama believes in clean Kentucky coal.”

The catch is that for now—and for years to come—“clean coal” will remain more a catchphrase than a reality. Despite the eagerness of the coal and power industries to sanitize their image and the desire of U.S. politicians to push a healthy-sounding alternative to expensive foreign oil and natural gas, clean coal is still a misnomer.

Precisely because of all that bloviating from industry and the campaigns, American journalists should have given more attention to the new CCS coal plant in Germany. Although it’s a continent away, it represents a tangible step toward the technology they’ve been promised. According to www.followthecoalmoney.org, Obama has received just over $17,100 from the coal industry since 2000, compared to McCain’s $51,850. Journalists have done a decent job of covering the coal industry’s influence on the presidential campaigns — USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press are among those that have weighed in. But journalists can always to do more and part of that involves following the technology as well.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.