Clean Coal: Pipe Dream or the Next Big Thing?

By: CBS News
By: CBS News

Much has been made about the skyrocketing price of oil lately, with some saying that drilling in environmentally sensitive areas is a possible solution. But utilities are testing technology to make one of America's most abundant fuel source - coal - a cleaner alternative.

Coal is, by far, the dirtiest way America makes its electric power, but a new ad campaign funded by the industry promises a future where clean coal is a viable option. And it's not just the industry. Both presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, are pushing clean coal.

But exactly what is the technology?

The cleanest coal plant in North America is operated by Tampa Electric, in the middle of rural Florida. They call it clean because they don't burn coal exactly - they mix it with water and oxygen and convert it into a gas.

According to company president John Ramil, gasifying coal allows the company to remove pollutants like sulphur, nitrogen and soot, which virtually eliminates acid rain.

"And you can do it much cleaner than with the conventional coal technology," says Ramil.

That's the good news. But here's the problem.

"There is no such thing as clean coal," says James Hansen, NASA's expert on global warming, who says all coal plants, even TECO's, still emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide - the most threatening greenhouse gas.

"There is no coal plant that captures the carbon dioxide and that's the major long-term pollutant," says Hansen.

But if carbon dioxide pollution is the problem with clean coal, many scientists believe there is a solution. They believe it's possible to recover most of the carbon dioxide and store it underground.

The idea is called "capture and sequester," and a global race is on to learn how it should be done. One Norwegian firm is storing tons of carbon dioxide in rock caves beneath the North Sea. America's efforts to sequester carbon have stalled. The Department of Energy planned to fund a plant, but pulled all funding when the price grew too high.

"They took seven years just to decide where they were going to make a pilot plant - and then they decided to cancel it," says Hansen.

And now, the failure to solve the carbon dioxide problem is a threat to coal itself. In the last five years, at least 63 coal-fired power plants have been scrapped or defeated by public opposition.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist helped pull the plug on the two clean coal plants because he says without a carbon solution, clean coal is not an option.

"Until that time comes, we want to develop more solar, more nuclear, more wind," says Crist.

Which is why the industry needs an ad campaign. Until the federal government funds the research on carbon dioxide, America's reliance on coal is in long-term trouble.


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