'Clean Coal' Is Far From Real

Not a panacea.

Photographer: Gary Tramontina/Bloomberg

“There is a thing called clean coal,” Donald Trump said during Sunday night’s debate. But there isn’t -- and won’t be for a considerable time, if ever.

Presumably, Trump was referring to so-called carbon-capture technology, which is designed to collect and dispose of coal plants’ carbon-dioxide emissions before they escape into the atmosphere, where they trap heat. That technology may be on the drawing board and in a few small-scale demonstration projects, but it’s not close to being ready for widespread use at an affordable price.

The one U.S. plant that's being designed to use carbon capture, now under construction in Kemper County, Mississippi, is two years behind schedule and $4 billion over budget. A similar, heavily subsidized project in Saskatchewan has demonstrated that outfitting the world’s power stations with the technology could cost upward of $17 trillion.

In the near future, carbon capture promises to be of little help in the fight against climate change -- especially compared with natural gas, the increasing supply of renewable power, and the clean energy that nuclear plants produce.

By insisting otherwise, Trump betrays the coal miners.

Trump blames Democrats and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for putting miners out of work by shutting down coal-fired power plants. That charge is inflated: The decline in coal jobs in the U.S. has mainly to do with better mining technology (reducing the number of workers), the worldwide collapse in coal prices, and competition from cheaper, cleaner sources of energy such as solar, wind and natural gas.

It’s true that, to some extent, the shift away from coal also reflects tighter federal regulations -- first to limit emissions of nitrogen and sulfur oxides, mercury and other risks to public health, and more recently to limit greenhouse gases. Those rules have made coal-fired power more expensive, and if the EPA’s carbon-dioxide limits survive judicial review, they may push states to close some coal plants. This will cost some number of American jobs. But it will also save many more lives, reducing asthma and other respiratory diseases around the world.

It’s simply wrong to suggest that the regulations could be rolled back at no cost, because coal plants could suddenly operate in a way that emits no carbon dioxide. The way to help unemployed coal miners is with job training, local economic development and direct financial assistance, not with impossible promises.  

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.