U.S. policymakers have been reluctant to adopt any measures to reduce greenhouse gases that would slow down economic growth. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman reportedly warned against “unintended consequences” that he says might result if the government requires economy-wide caps on carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. “There is a concern within this administration that the imposition of a carbon cap in this country would lead to the transfer of jobs and industry abroad to nations that do not have such a carbon cap,” Bodman says. “You would then have the U.S. economy damaged and, potentially, even worse emissions.” Only in his recent State of the Union message did the President agree there might be a problem with global warming. His recommendations to Congress included raising the mileage standards for autos and increasing research and development of alternative- and renewable-energy sources… plus cleaner-coal technology.
Coal is our most abundant fossil-fuel resource. Some experts forecast we have enough to last more than 200 years. But, coal is dangerous to mine and dirty to burn – although not as dangerous or dirty as it used to be. Burning coal is used to generate more than half our electricity, but applications for new plants are receiving strong opposition. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that a typical conventional coal power plant produces the following emissions each year:
- 3,700,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).
- 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2).
- 500 tons of small airborne particles.
- 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx).
- 720 tons of carbon monoxide (CO).
- 220 tons of hydrocarbons.
- 170 pounds of mercury.
- 225 pounds of arsenic.
- 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, and trace amounts of uranium.
The federal program to research and demonstrate clean-coal technology comes with significant challenges. “Clean coal” is the term for coal chemically washed of minerals and impurities – and sometimes gasified – before burning. The exhaust flue gases are treated with steam to remove sulphur dioxide, then reburned to make the carbon dioxide in the flue gas recoverable. The carbon dioxide then can be captured and stored, possibly in abandoned oil fields, instead of being released into the atmosphere. Opponents often state that clean-coal emissions are not reduced; they are merely transferred from one waste stream to another. This is the technology’s largest challenge, both from the practical and public-relations perspectives. Although it is possible to remove most of the sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter from the coal-burning process, carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions are more difficult to remove. Technologies to capture and store CO2 have not been deployed commercially due to high cost. Some prominent environmentalists, such as Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming and Clean Energy Program, believe that the term “clean coal” is misleading: “There is no such thing as clean coal and there never will be. It’s an oxymoron.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clean_coal). So, if the local utility company offers you some choices in the source of your power, you can be an informed customer. If there are some clean renewable options offered (such as solar or wind generation) and you believe it is important to reduce global warming, perhaps you will pay a little more for the assurance that you are helping to preserve the earth for future generations. If the use of fossil fuels helps assure the competitive costs of your operations will not be threatened today, then perhaps global warming will not be your biggest concern. The bottom line either way: There will be some people who agree with you. Here is a plus: You may keep up with state-federal partnerships for clean energy at (http://epa.gov/cleanenergy/stateandlocal/partnership.htm).