Coal. Need I say more?

Every corner of my regular morning stroll through the internet is littered with references to coal. One could say that coal is in the air. And it doesn't smell good. First, there's this depressing news from British Columbia:

Teck-Cominco's eye-popping, $14-billion purchase of Fording Canadian Coal this week sends a clear signal that coal will play an important role in the future of British Columbia. The deal makes Teck-Cominco the world's second-largest producer of metallurgical coal -- the kind used in steelmaking -- and solidifies its status as Canada's largest diversified mining company.

Oil and gas grab all the headlines, but coal is B.C.'s -- and the world's -- most abundant hydrocarbon resource, with estimated B.C. reserves of 20 billion tonnes, and proven global reserves of more than 892 billion tonnes, or enough to meet demand at current consumption rates for two centuries. (Vancouver Sun, Aug. 2)

That's from an editorial that goes on to champion the vital role that coal will play in everyone's lives for the forseeable future, thanks in part to good old carbon capture and sequestration technology. Leaving aside the doubts of growing numbers of analysts about the actual size of coal reserves, the main thrust of the editorialist's argument relies on pure fancy. Which brings us to our second editorial of the day, this one from Nature's Climate Change report. Author Olive Heffernan reminds us that "CCS has yet to be proved to work on electricity-generating plants" and then gives us the really sobering story:

Measured against the sequestration capabilities of the world's three existing showcase projects, America alone would need 1,500 such plants to store the emissions generated by its electricity industry. Yet its one serious attempt to make CCS operational, in the form of the FutureGen project, was cancelled this year owing to an unexpected hike in costs from $830 million to $1.8 billion.

So even if we could cut the cost of that pilot plant in half for widespread adoption, we'd' still be looking at more than a trillion dollars to get rid of CO2 emissions from coal. But that doesn't stop McCain or Obama from including "clean coal" in their future energy portfolio. Here's McCain in April:

The United States has coal reserves more abundant than Saudi Arabia's oil reserves. We found a way to cut down acid rain pollutants from burning coal, and we can find a way to use our coal resources without emitting excessive greenhouse gases.

And here's an excerpt from Obama's new energy vision, released Monday:

Carbon capture and storage technologies hold enormous potential to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as we power our economy with domestically produced and secure energy.... An Obama administration will provide incentives to accelerate private sector investment in commercial scale zero-carbon coal facilities. In order to maximize the speed with which we advance this critical technology, Obama will instruct DOE to enter into public private partnerships to develop 5 "first-of-a-kind" commercial scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration.

Finally, here's NASA Jim Hansen, reporting this week on his recent overseas visits from foreign governments:

The fundamental issue is not widely appreciated, as shown by the fact that governments continue to talk about goals to reduce emission by 20%, 50%, 80% etc. No matter what number is chosen, this approach guarantees failure. It allows coal emissions to continue, new coal plants to be built and unconventional fossil fuels to be developed....

We cannot pretend that a goal for future CO2 emission reductions will solve the climate problem. If we continue to ignore obvious geophysical facts about the magnitude of fossil fuel reservoirs, our children and grandchildren will have little reason to forgive our obtuseness. The only practical way to keep climate change within tolerable limits is to cut off coal emissions and to have a price on carbon emissions that discourages unconventional fossil fuel (UFF) use.

Hansen's reference to geophysical facts are compelling. But so is the political reality that no politician hoping to attract national support can embrace the notion of an immediate moratorium on new coal-fired plants and a phaseout of existing plants within the next 20 or 30 years. Where does that leave us?

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While I agree with Jim Hansen's assessment that anything other than 100% reduction of CO2 in coal fired generation plants is not going to be useful, I just had to point out that we should not balk at the notion that doing the job right will cost a trillion dollars. After all for a trillion dollars, spent in just six years or so, we got ourselves a war in Iraq, with nothing to show for it but a bunch of broken equipment, a chaotic Middle East and thousands of dead. Spend the trillion on CCS and at the end of it you've got... a working CCS system, not to mention all the jobs it will create.

By Lambert Heenan (not verified) on 06 Aug 2008 #permalink

Road Kill - a category I would place the majority of the public in. They are like deer frozen in the headlights of Climate Change. Not knowing what to believe or what to do in the overwhelming Juggernaut that the up coming climate change is.

Many just believe that someone is going to sort out the problem in time. Human ingenuity will come to the rescue.

Lets cross our fingers.

I defy anyone running for office right now to come up with a realistic, comprehensive energy plan for the mid- to long-term and be elected to office. It just isn't going to happen. The best we can hope for - the absolute best - is reasonable compromise in the short term and some efforts to get to a point where a politician can talk about the issue in anything other than pie-in-the-sky terms without being tarred and feathered. Oh, and we had better have some technology on hand, or at least waiting in the wings, before a politician can talk about energy sources other than coal or nuclear. Unfortunately, it will probably take an environmental disaster for us to get to that point.