Students and faculty critique ‘clean coal’
Several Washington University environment and energy experts came together to critique clean coal and to discuss problems with the University’s funding of a Missouri clean coal initiative.
“This notion of clean coal is an oxymoron,” said Bill Lowry, professor of political science. “Coal is going to inevitably be dirty. I think the term is perpetuated by a consortium of energy companies who try to frame the issue likely to gain public support.”
The discussion comes several months after Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s announcement last December that the University would establish a Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization to advance research in the field commonly referred to as “clean coal.”
Yet, at last Wednesday’s panel discussion in the Danforth University Center concerns were raised about the University’s $12 million initiative, which is sponsored by coal-based energy companies Arch Coal, Peabody Energy and Ameren.
Environmental lawyer and 7th Hour panelist Henry Robertson pointed out that 85 percent of Missouri’s energy comes from coal—compared to a national average of 50 percent.
As the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization continues to plan its funding of research and technology, much of the Consortium’s attention will go toward carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration, also known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), is a process by which carbon dioxide emissions by-produced from burning coal are stored underground, thereby mitigating the power plant’s effect on climate change.
“There will be facilities that will look at…carbon capture and utilization,” said Professor of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering Richard Axelbaum, who also serves as director of the Consortium.
“But right now we don’t have plans to look at the entire scale of the problem,” Axelbaum said.
The Consortium is also planning to build a small clean coal power plant on the north campus, yet this project—like the rest of plans by the Consortium—remains in its conceptual stages without a projected date of completion. This power plant, according to former Green Action president and senior Lee Cordova, will research CCS and its efficacy compared to alternative energy sources, such as biomass and solar power.
Regardless of the work done by the Consortium, panelists such as Associate Professor of Philosophy Clare Palmer, who also teaches environmental ethics and environmental lawyer Maxine Lipeles, who teaches at the University’s law school, take issue of the usage of the term “clean coal.” At the panel, Palmer stated that because of the way coal is “mined, transported and used at the end,” coal could not be considered fully safe for the environment, even with CCS.
Like Lowry and Palmer, Lipeles also took issue with the “clean coal” terminology.
“I have a number of tremendous concerns about this topic, which I think is misleading and diversionary,” said Lipeles in an opening statement at the panel. “What does clean coal mean? It’s not quite clear—both the Department of Energy and the industry define ‘clean coal’ to mean reducing the amount of pollution that would otherwise come out.”
Robertson stated that CCS is expensive because it requires a suitable geologic formation in which to store carbon dioxide. CCS creates a “parasitic load,” where the equipment needed to operate the carbon storage mechanisms may take 10 to 40 percent of the plant’s output.
“That’s an awful lot of coal you have to burn to get rid of the carbon dioxide,” Robertson said.
For environmental lawyers like Lipeles, part of the concern rests with the University’s adoption of the term “clean coal”—a term she sees as a marketing label used by the coal industry, which defines its research as “clean.”
“I don’t have a problem with the research, but I do have a problem with taking [the industry’s] spin with it,” Lipeles said. “And I don’t think that’s consistent with the ideals of a university and the academic integrity that motivates a university.”
Co-president of Green Action and junior Melissa Legge shared similar feelings, describing the problems surrounding the use of the term “clean coal” as “definitely relevant” to the environmental discourse at the University.
“The use of the term…is the most problematic issue, and it’s not scientifically specific in a way we expect from a university,” Legge said.
Yet, as Robertson puts it, coal is likely to remain a primary source of energy in Missouri, regardless of its adverse effect on the environment. Therefore, researchers like Axelbaum seem to place emphasis on environmental research over the language surrounding the issue of “clean coal.”
“I think the most important thing we do right now is address the issue of carbon in the atmosphere, and I think the real issue is the most appropriate way to do that. It’s very clear there are ways to address the carbon issue with coal—and if we can do that, then we can supply our needs without affecting the climate,” Axelbaum said. “Whether or not we call it clean coal, that’s irrelevant.”