Veep Drinking Game

Is There Such a Thing as Clean Coal?

A few days before Christmas, a Tennessee coal plant's retention pond broke flooding a billion gallons of coal ash into the Emory River. The expected clean-up could take years, not to mention the amount of fish and wildlife killed. Add to that the arsenic and other chemicals dumped into the river. The Kingston Steam Plant is one of the many coal power plants, that contributes to the United States coming in second only to China in coal production. The U.S. produces half of its energy from coal, contributing to 40% of the world's energy that comes from coal. Coal accounts for about 36 percent of the United States carbon dioxide emissions of around 6 billion tons every year, according to the Department of Energy. As well as the environmental impact that goes along with digging it from the ground. This all leads to the question, is there really such a thing as clean coal?

Clean Coal?
Image: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)

Clean coal is a term widely used to describe a new technology that is supposed to reduce the environmental impact of coal-burning power plants. Supposed clean coal has not been proven to work on large scale power plants. Nor has it been proven that the environmental impacts of coal production and use are all that much different in clean coal. The overall coal byproducts don't vary that much between clean coal and standard coal use. The only real benefit is the immediate amount of carbon dioxide and other chemicals being released into the air. Instead of pumping it into the air, ideas float around such as pumping it into the ground. That way instead of dealing with it now, we can let it store up for later generations deal with. Or chemically treating the coal to wash out impurities and minerals. Yes, chemicals are always a good way of dealing with things.

In the case of the Kingston Plant, we have seen that coal has another wasteful byproduct, coal ash. Coal ash landfills and storage ponds like the one in Tennessee cover 124 square miles across the United States, according to a 1999 D.O.E. report. Some coal ash can be re-used, such as mixing with concrete. But the majority, over 60 percent, is currently dumped into landfills or sits in ash ponds.


So, is clean coal actually that clean? No, not really. it's cleaner and has less of an immediate impact on the environment compared to current coal use, but cleaner hardly equals clean. The United States government is spending billions on clean coal funding, with President-Elect Obama, stating that he will increase the funding. Yes, coal is an abundant and cheap resource in the United States, but at what point are we going to realize coal use should be left in the past, and renewable are the future? Instead of continued and increased funding for coal, why not spend that money on alternatives? Current projections state we have over 200 years of easy coal available, according to an article on, and the assumption is by then it won't be an issue. Well, what about now? Again, 36 percent of current carbon dioxide from the U.S. is from coal, so in 200 years when coal isn't an option, will it even matter by then? With some reports stating a quarter of all mammals on the planet right now are endangered, how many will be left after 200 years of coal use, clean or otherwise?