Sunday, March 11, 2001

Can 'clean coal' meet our energy needs?

Coal states push for new research; critics decry the dirty fuel

By Nancy Zuckerbrod
The Associated Press

        While California's woes have focused attention on the nation's energy supplies, coal-state senators are pushing the fossil fuel by offering money for research into cleaner-burning methods and tax breaks for utilities that use them.

        Critics say the “clean coal” effort is just corporate welfare that promotes air pollution.

    One emerging clean-coal technology involves turning coal from a solid into a gas. Pollutants are formed in a more concentrated stream when a gasifier is used instead of a furnace, and the pollutants can be removed before they are emitted.
    Tom Sarkus, senior technical analyst at the Energy Department's National Energy Technology Lab, said a gasification demonstration project at a plant in Tampa, Fla., has drastically reduced nitrogen oxide and sulfur-dioxide emissions.
    Another cleaner-coal method involves injecting air into a furnace containing coal, ash and limestone. A fluid-like substance is formed and the limestone in it captures sulfur before it is emitted. Such technology is more widely used than gasification but only at small plants, Mr. Sarkus said.
        West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., acknowledge that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. But they say research and tax breaks are a good taxpayer investment because coal is abundant and comparatively cheap.

        The senators, who received a combined total of $75,000 from the coal-mining industry during the 2000 election cycle, have introduced a plan spending $1 billion over 10 years for research and up to $6 billion in tax breaks in the next decade for utilities to refurbish plants or build new facilities using emerging coal technologies.

        “We haven't done nearly as much in that field as we should. We can produce this power cleanly,” said Mr. McConnell, whose state ranks third in coal production.

        Opponents argue that coal never will be as clean as natural gas or renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power.

        “I don't want to prolong an energy source that will ultimately hurt us in the long term,” Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said. “The incentives ought to be toward cleaner-burning fuels.”

        Seventeen senators — nine Republicans and eight Democrats — are co-sponsoring the Byrd-McConnell bill, which is backed by the coal industry and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska. He incorporated much of their legislation into a comprehensive energy bill introduced last week.

        President Bush, the biggest individual recipient of coal-mining industry donations last year with $114,521, included in his budget plan $2 billion over 10 years for clean-coal research and development projects.

        Coal is the nation's leading source of electricity. Despite tougher clean-air standards, emissions from coal-fired power plants still include high levels of nitrogen oxide, a key component of smog; sulfur dioxide, which mixes with nitrogen oxide and airborne moisture to form acid rain; carbon dioxide, which some blame for global warming; and mercury, which is poisonous to animals and humans.

        Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. and a co-sponsor of the Byrd-McConnell bill, said coal-fired plants in his state have helped make the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the most polluted national park in the nation. Finding ways to more cleanly burn coal will reduce pollution, he said.

        “When all is said and done, our ultimate goal in this effort is clean air,” he said.

        Environmentalists are upset the bill would exempt utilities that use new technologies from laws aimed at reducing emissions. They say until those technologies are proven, the utilities should be required to meet the laws.

        “The bottom line is there is this concept that we're going to make coal a clean fuel. That in itself is a misconception,” said Lexi Shultz, an environmental lawyer with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.


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