From Fly Ash to “Clean” Coal

National media slow to expand excellent local coverage after sludge spills

Both the American and Canadian press took a ‘Well, we’ll see,’ attitude toward the announcement yesterday that President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will collaborate on clean-energy efforts.

Obama, however, made a very important point (and one that was largely overlooked in the press accounts) when he noted that before meaningful change is possible the U.S. must “complete our domestic debate and discussion around these issues.”

And we have not done that. Obama suggested an excellent case in point: What to do about the U.S.’s dependence on cheap, but dirty, coal, which generates more than half the country’s electricity and is one of the largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions. “[I]f we can figure out how to capture the carbon, that would make an enormous difference in how we operate. Right now the technologies are at least not cost-effective,” Obama said. He might have added that developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) at a meaningful scale also faces serious engineering hurdles.

Many environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, think that America should not waste time with CCS – that any dollar spent on coal, a relic of energies past, is a dollar that could have gone to support (through R&D, tax incentives, etc.) renewable sources like wind, solar, or biofuels. Yet the demand for power is rising and many policy experts and economists say that it will be a long time until we can abandon coal without causing serious economic disruption, in terms of both electricity prices and the loss of coal jobs. CCS is the apparent solution, allowing us to reduce emissions from the burning of coal until it can be phased out.

Yet this country has suffered from such a muddled conversation about “clean coal” that nobody seems to know what to do next. Take, for instance, the coverage of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) waste pond spill in Kingston, Tennessee, in December. Roughly a billion gallons of coal ash and water—mixed into a potentially toxic sludge laced with heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium—washed over 300 acres, destroying homes and running into the nearby Emory River.

Local media jumped on the story, covering the extent the damage, the response by the TVA and the Environmental Protection Agency, estimates of the various health risks, and issues surrounding waste ponds generally. The Nashville Tennessean, the Knoxville News Sentinel, and the Chattanooga Times Free Press, deserve particular credit, as do The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for placing the story in a broader, regional context. A refrain throughout that reporting was the point that coal ash, leftover from burning, is proof that coal is (and always will be) dirty.

Over the course of the last year, and especially during coverage of the presidential election, a massive, industry-funded advertising campaign attempted to sell Americans on the idea of “clean coal.” A lot of journalists rightly labeled the term an oxymoron, but few took the extra step and differentiated the bad label from CCS, the potentially useful technology behind it.

Despite all the excellent local and regional spot reporting after the Tennessee spill (and one that followed it two weeks later at another TVA waste pond in Alabama), it took the national media a while to realize that the disaster was the perfect hook for a discussion about the future of coal and where technologies like CCS—touted by President Obama—will fit in. Indeed, it was at least two days after the spill before outlets like The New York Times, National Public Radio, and CNN even reported what had happened. Thereafter, those outlets produced some very good reporting. The Times’s Shaila Dewan and The Associated Press’s Dina Cappiello both had great pieces on the huge volume of unregulated coal ash “piling up” in ponds around the country, and how the Environmental Protection Agency has refused to designate the material as hazardous waste.

But take three pieces—from The New York Times, Time magazine, and The Discovery Channel—that went a step farther, arguing that the waste is proof that “clean coal” is a myth. These reports make a clear distinction between the notion of “clean” as it applies to CCS and to coal ash. Time’s Bryan Walsh, for instance, wrote that, “The ‘clean coal’ campaign was always more PR than reality — currently there’s no economical way to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal, and many experts doubt there ever will be. But now the idea of clean coal might be truly dead, buried beneath the 1.1 billion gallons of water mixed with toxic coal ash….” But then, once the point is made that coal is and always will be unclean, the three pieces end with somewhat frustrating, open-ended points about the future. The New York Times, for example, concludes its January 23 editorial (one of the three pieces mentioned here) with the argument that “[C]oal remains an inherently dirty fuel … The sooner the country understands that, the closer it will be to mitigating the damage.”

Well, sort of. That’s an important first step, but there is still much for that needs to be discussed. First and foremost, we must decide whether or not CCS technology is as worthless as the “clean coal” slogan used to sell it. Unfortunately, reporters were so busy exploring coal ash’s relationship to the “clean coal” slogan that few explored coal ash’s relationship to new pollution control technologies, which might have produced some very interesting stories.

One of the most thorough and forward-looking reports on this subject was actually a package of articles by James Bruggers in 2002 titled “Coal Ash: A Big Unknown,” in the Louisville Courier-Journal. One article describes how coal ash is used in a number of commercial products, particularly masonry materials. But in another, Bruggers has the far more unique angle that new pollution control technologies “produce more combustion waste — up to 60 percent more with one type of burner — that must be disposed of or used commercially. And some people, including environmentalists and environmental regulators, are concerned that ash may begin to contain larger quantities of potentially harmful pollutants.”

Bruggers never mentioned what that “one type of burner” is, but several months before his package, Edward Lowe, a product line manager at General Electric, testified to Congress about Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) Technology, which could potentially be used to capture and store carbon dioxide. Lowe noted that “In IGCC, coal ash is converted in the gasifier into a solid, vitreous slag which is chemically inert. This non-leaching slag can be employed in the construction industry as road fill or as strengthening aggregate for building concrete. IGCC does not require secure landfill sites for ash storage and ash-landfill pollutant leaching into the groundwater is not an issue.”

It’s unclear whether CCS technologies will ameliorate or exacerbate the problems surrounding coal ash. The point, though, is that there are many unexplored questions and angles that reporters could use to advance the national conversation about our coal industry.

Clean energy is what we’re striving for, but we have a dilemma. An article in The Times of London this week, headlined “Windmills flap helplessly as coal remains king,” put it very poetically: “Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, the nation is becalmed, a painted ship on a painted ocean and we have gone back a century, hewing the same coal that first but Britain on the fast track to the Industrial Revolution. The reason why we are still stuffing black lumps of carbon into furnaces is simple: it makes economic sense and the financial markets are shouting this message louder than ever.”

And the American press is catching on. Last Sunday, The New York Times, published an excellent piece last Sunday, headlined “Is America Ready to Quit Coal?” that jumped off from a protest in the front yard of Duke Energy chief executive James E. Rogers. The article, by Melanie Warner, reported that the coal industry “is in a fight for its survival … In the last two-and-a-half years, plans for 83 plants in the United States have either been voluntarily withdrawn for denied permits by state regulators … Nevertheless, the industry sees clean coal technologies as its best hope for joining the ranks of green power,” and 16 gigawatts of new coal-fired generation are expected to come online in the next few years.

So, Obama is right: “[I]f we can figure out how to capture the carbon, that would make an enormous difference in how we operate.” But maybe that’s a waste of time.

As The Washington Post pointed out this week, the EPA is signaling that it might regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act despite industry opposition and the fact that “technology for capturing carbon dioxide emissions is expensive and virtually untested.” Moreover, the stimulus bill passed this week includes only $3.4 billion for fossil fuel research and development projects, according to Grist, while setting aside “at least $62.2 billion in direct spending on green initiatives and $20 billion in green tax incentives.”

Maybe that is indication that we have, in fact, made certain decisions about our priorities. But Obama’s remarks about CCS in Canada yesterday are a signal that other questions remain. One only hopes that in the wake of this winter’s coal-ash spills, the ridiculous debate about whether or not coal is clean will no longer distract the press from raising them.

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