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.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.