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Why “Clean Coal” Isn’t

The coal industry's PR machine has created a meaningless moniker that won't die.

It's been a rough couple of months for shills of the vague, fantastical, and make-believe promise of clean coal. First, Brian Williams called the phrase an "oxymoron" and the concept "wishful thinking" in a lead-in to an NBC report. Soon thereafter, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy (ACCCE, the industry's front group) yanked a ridiculous "clean coal carolers" PR stunt off their website after a brief, three-day run and much, much ridicule. Then, just before Christmas, about a billion gallons of coal ash sludge broke through an earthen dike at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in central Tennessee, flooding downstream communities with a heavy metal-laden spill more than 40 times larger than the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, leading to a flurry of headlines mocking the "clean coal" moniker.But this is a phrase that won't die easily. As I type, the increasingly desperate players in the Big Coal industry are sharpening their PR swords and preparing new rhetorical attacks, determined to confuse the American public by confounding the American media. Indeed, in the past year alone, ACCCE has spent nearly $40 millionrounding up a "Blogger Brigade" to sway the online debate. (Indeed there's a good chance that by the time you read this, "David with ACCCE"-or some other snake oil salesman-will have already left a comment below.)

What's inarguable is how well they've plugged the phrase into the public consciousness. More than any other energy or environmental question that lands in my inbox or pops up in an IM or conversation is some variation on: "So…is ‘clean coal' for real?" To understand how it's not, in fact, for real, one has to first pin down the obscure, elusive definition being offered. Over at Grist last month, Dave Roberts boiled down the scam: "They leave the definition of ‘clean coal' deliberately ambiguous. As ACCCE spokesman Joe Lucas said on NPR the other day, ‘clean coal' is an evolutionary term." By "evolutionary," of course, he means, "whatever we need it to mean at the moment." If one meaning is attacked, they subtly shift to another meaning.Though ACCCE doesn't provide any single, stable definition, "clean coal" is usually claimed to be either "climate clean," as a result of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) processes, or "air clean," which Roberts describes as "the notion that coal plants have reduced their emissions of traditional air pollutants like particulates and mercury (as opposed to greenhouse gases)."It becomes a game of rhetorical bait-and-switch. Point out that there are exactly zero commercial power plants in the U.S. that sequester any carbon emissions, and "clean coal" advocates talk about how they've reduced "emissions" (though not greenhouse gasses). Mention that coal-burning power plants are still the country's largest source of acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide pollution and airborne emissions of birth-defect- and brain-damage-causing mercury pollution-or that they're responsible for roughly 24,000 deaths every year in the United States-and ACCCE will tell you that they're a mere ten years away from perfecting the art of carbon capture.And that's not to even speak of the devastation wrought from mountaintop removal mining or the toxic waste left over after coal is burned. (Ask the residents of Harriman, Tennessee how clean coal is.)The cynical, aggressively deceptive ploy of (ashy) smoke and mirrors relies on a gullible media and a public short on attention. There is no aspect of coal energy that is, by any meaningful definition, clean. But there's a whole lot of money being spent to trick you into thinking otherwise.(Images: A 40-acre ash pond near Harriman, Tennessee, created by the TVA spill, photographed on December 22, 2008; From Flickr user Mushy's Captures. Image of the Clean Coal Carolers from

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