Clean Coal: Oxymoron of the Century

Last week we published an article on Nuclear power, and boy did the sparks fly … Good. Our intentions are always to objectively present the information and start a conversation, even on a subject as touchy as nuclear power. Many of our readers fundamentally oppose nuclear power due to their belief it poses safety concerns and toxic waste. Yet, we all live under the umbrella of a generating source that does not threaten ecological disasters,  doesn’t pose the threat of toxic pollution, and does not have the potential for harm to human life … it does them all every day. All masked under the term “Clean Coal” what an oxymoron. Whenever I see a coal plant, the first thing I think of is “duck and cover”.

The concept of a sales pitch probably dates as far back as the first shady dealings between two of our prehistoric ancestors over a mangy hide of questionable origins. Throughout our evolution and across the spans of time, the concept still remains the same: convince someone that a product is better than it really is, and they will buy it. Sales pitches are part of our everyday life, and unfortunately people get so caught up in the pitch that they forget what it is they are buying; more importantly what the consequences of the product are.

Earth911 - Clean Coal

The first indicator that a product might be less than advertised is when it is named by the Government agency that regulates it. “Clean Coal” was coined by Congress in the mid 1980’s in an attempt to address the growing concern over the effects of coal production and the environmental impact. Why? Basically because it sounds better, right? “CLEAN Coal”. Much better than “Toxic Coal”, “Hazardous Coal”, or just plain old “Terrible Irreversible Consequences Coal”. The same concept was applied to Kentucky Fried Chicken re-branding its self as KFC once consumers became self-aware of the garbage that the fast food industry was peddling, thus making “fried” a bad word. The product is exactly the same, yet KFC magically sounds much healthier, I guess. Stamp a shiny new name on it, and we as Americans eat it up one ignorant bite at a time. “Oh, coal energy is okay because they use Clean Coal”. Wrong. Nothing about coal is clean.


The term “Clean Coal” actually refers to the process of removing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses from the emissions created from burning coal. Worldwide, coal is responsible for 26.6% of all electricity production and 43.1% of all Carbon Dioxide emissions. That’s with the current global restrictions and regulations that were adopted in the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC is a legally binding treaty that was adopted in 1997 and put into force in 2005. All 192 parties present signed the treaty, but the very country that coined the term “Clean Coal”, the United States, has yet to ratify it, essentially turning it into a document with as much viable impact as last month’s issue of Teen magazine.

As far as I am concerned, this is on par with the DEA fighting the drug war by adapting the phrase “Healthy Methamphetamine”, and hoping that people just start ignoring the problem. Coal emissions are just one aspect of the complete environmental catastrophe.


Coal mining, whether it is open pit mining, or strip mining, is responsible for large scale water pollution. The water that is used to refine lower-grade coals pollutes ground water, streams, and even the soil it runs through. The contact of water to the Pyrite in the coal is one of the major contributors to acid rain. Not to mention the fact that strip mining in the US between 1930 and 2000 is responsible for the destruction of 5.9 million acres of land, land that has a less than 30% success rate when re-seeded because of the damage to the soil.

Strip Mining

Burning Coal:

Although coal emissions are the main focus of the “Clean Coal” initiative, it’s far from the only byproduct of burning coal. A 500 megaton coal plant that is big enough to power a city of about 140,000 people produces 125,000 tons of ash, and 193,000 tons of sludge comprised of ash and limestone. The problem is that coal ash doesn’t stop at infecting the air with toxic particulates that destroy air quality. Just this year in Danville, VA the Dan River was polluted with an estimated 82 tons of toxic ash from a coal plant that wasn’t even in production. It turned the river into a pool of polluted mud.

Strip Mining

So why the pitch for “Clean Coal”?

Because coal is cheap and because it is readily available.

Polishing up the reputation of coal production and use through a gimmicky re-branding re-focuses the attention of the everyday consumer. A consumer who, if they understood the real impact of the coal industry, might opt for energy alternatives. Unfortunately, alternatives require money to develop, and therefore aren’t attractive. More money is spent on clean coal research than is spent on the research for energy alternatives combined. That includes wind, solar, and nuclear alternatives.

I won’t sit here and say that advancements haven’t been made in the coal industry over the last 30 years. I will say however, that addressing and regulating only one aspect of the pollution index of coal is like measuring the temperature of a house fire instead of trying to put it out…

There is hope on the horizon though, in the form of websites like that will show you what percentage of your electricity is from coal based power plants. There are companies like New Leaf Energy that distributes electricity into the power grid that is generated with 100% renewable resources. The only solution to the environmental epidemic of coal is to remove the need for coal, not give it a fancy name and distract from the issue.

What if I told you there is an energy source right now that has no emissions and is accountable for less than 1% of the industrial waste created every year. Even then, the waste that is created is recyclable. An energy source that already comprises half of the US’s power grid, yet it sees a 10th of the research and development of coal technology. We discussed it: Nuclear Power. Even with it’s warts, until we find a load balanced, renewable, clean, and viable energy source, it really might be the best alternative we have.

By Justin Gammill

He is "stealthy like a ninja at midnight, yet brazen like a champion Mexican fighting chicken". Justin Gammill approaches his topics in a manner that provokes thought, laughter, and the occasional “did he just say that?”. Chances are, yes, he most certainly did just say that. So, buckle up … you never know where the train of thought is going.