Flogging the “Clean Coal” Dead Horse: The Latest Trump Environment and Energy Strategy

June 18, 2017 – The Trump fascination with coal mining is hard to understand when one shines a light on today’s energy industry in the United States. Coal is no longer cost competitive as a fuel for thermal energy power plants having been supplanted by natural gas. No new coal-fired plants are being built. Coal consumption is in worldwide decline. But despite all this business evidence, Trump continues to push a coal agenda. His Department of Energy (DOE), on its website, is extolling the virtues of “clean coal” technology, while scrubbing away information on climate change.

What is meant by clean coal?

According to the DOE it is in reference to power generation efficiencies from new thermal plants that include technology for capturing carbon dioxide (CO2). DOE is funding carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and carbon capture and utilization (CCU) programs to benefit the existing coal-burning thermal power plants, and future advanced fossil fuel power generating facilities. In other words, DOE is doubling down on coal while trying to make carbon capture commercially doable.

I have written about CCS and CCU technology at great length here at 21st Century Tech blog, and I believe it has a place in the mix of technologies needed to reduce our future carbon footprint while continuing to maintain the energy needed for the global economy to remain sustainable. But betting on advanced fossil fuel power stations is a fools errand and although the DOE website waxes poetic about improving the efficiency of coal-based power, and enabling affordable CCS and CCU while meeting the highest environmental standards, is largely malarky served with a big spoon.

Why do I say this?

Australia’s energy infrastructure has been built on coal-fired power. But the system is aging, inefficient and polluting. Recently it produced a briefing paper on the subject of “clean coal.” A panel of reviewers led by Dr. Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, concluded that “clean coal” doesn’t really pass the smell test.

And this is in a country which is about to open the largest new coal mine in the world, the Carmichael Mine. The coal dug from the open pit at Carmichael will largely not be used domestically. Instead, it will be exported to Asian markets where it will fuel other country’s thermal power plants.

Australia is exporting carbon emissions rather than creating them domestically. In government reports the country describes the mining and burning of coal as detrimental to the health of Australians and that the fuel is toxic and carcinogenic. It even has reported on high-efficiency coal burning technologies supposedly like those the DOE in the U.S. is hyping. These plants burn anthracite coal, the hardest and cleanest of the mineral which still produces 80% of the emissions of brown coal burning power plants. And Australian researchers show that adding CCS and CCU technology to older plants such as these, to try and reduce emissions, actually increases them initially because of the extra energy needed for the CO2 extraction process.

CCS and CCU remain government heavily subsidized technologies. Commercial utility operators have shied away from adding these components to existing coal-fired power plants. Installations have experienced enormous cost overruns reaching multi-billion dollars. One commercial-scale project is up and running associated with coal is up and running in Canada, and one is operating in Texas. And both of these projects attempt to recover their costs by pumping the captured CO2 into older oil wells to extend their commercial operating lives. So CCS is being used to produce more oil which when refined and burned will produce even more emissions.

Today the DOE lists 57 clean coal technology demonstration projects. Not one is commercially viable. All are tests or demonstrations. All predate Donald Trump’s presidency. Most will likely fail to scale or to be commercially justifiable. And no one yet knows if they actually will reduce emissions after carbon emissions from needed energy inputs are subtracted from the equation.

That’s “clean coal” for you. A misnomer if there ever was one, and the dead horse that President Trump and his Secretary of Energy have decided to collectively ride.

A final note, Donald Trump’s proposed budget will actually cut funding to many of these 57 projects and to the DOE’s “clean coal” research. What does that tell you?


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery.