Perhaps, amid the nail-biting drama of the second presidential debate, you caught Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump make a quick and passing reference to “clean coal”, offhandedly stating that coal “could last a thousand years in this country.”
The presidential debate between the two candidates may have quickly moved on, but we’re going to take a minute to unpack his comments.
First: Just what is clean coal?
In reality, there is no such thing as clean coal. Coal is the dirtiest type of fossil fuel, producing more carbon than either natural gas or oil per kWh and contributing to health issues for both miners and individuals who live near coal plants. But when people speak of “clean coal”, they are in fact most often talking about the process of capturing carbon (and other greenhouse gases produced from burning coal) and preventing them from entering the atmosphere. This is called CCS — carbon capture and storage or sequestration.
This technology is nothing new. The United States Department of Energy first started a research and development program focused on CCS use in coal plants back in 1998 to demonstrate the viability of technologies that curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal. But over the years, the term “clean coal” has generated backlash, with Al Gore likening “clean coal” to “healthy cigarettes” back in 2008. Frank O’Donnell, President of Clean Air Watch, agreed, saying, “I think the concept of ‘clean coal’ was cooked up as a sop to folks in coal-heavy states that are looking for government welfare to subsidize a boondoggle technology. ‘Clean coal’ is like saying ‘clean dirt.’”
How widespread is “clean coal” technology in the United States?
In short: not very. There are currently zero commercial-scale “clean coal” plants using CCS in the United States, despite billions of dollars of federal investment in the technology. Over the years, the United States federal government has pulled out of several “clean coal” projects, citing delays and budget issues.
It is possible that “clean coal” technology is simply not economically viable in our current energy market. Experts weighing in were agnostic about chances of wide-scale implementation of the technology, with Jeremy Richardson, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calling “clean coal” technology “uneconomic” at this point in time, especially for an industry that is quickly losing market share to natural gas. It is worth noting, however, that the Union of Concerned Scientists does support research and development of CSS technologies.
How about coal lasting for a thousand years in the United States?
Here’s the problem with Trump’s claim about coal’s potential for longevity here in the United States: the math doesn’t add up. In fact, if you crunch the numbers, it turns out that you’d need to divide Trump’s “a thousand years” by about ten to arrive at a more realistic number of years. According to the National Academy of Sciences, there were only about 100 years left of known coal supplies in the US as of 2007.
So, what gives?
There may be a market for “clean coal” technology internationally, since coal is expected to experience growth in developing nations in the coming years. In fact, according to John Litynski, carbon capture program manager and CCS division director at the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy, India and China are expected to add several hundred gigawatts of coal power in the next decade. If global coal use grows as expected, “clean coal” technologies could be used to mitigate the health and environmental impacts that coal plants will otherwise produce in countries in which they will operate.
But let us be certain to note: there is skepticism that the technology is viable in the United States soon if at all, so to frame it as an imminent and immediate possibility here in the United States is misleading. And unfortunately, it provides mining communities with false hope for domestic revitalization of the industry — when efforts could instead be perhaps directed toward rebuilding these local economies with alternative economic drivers.