Everything Trump said about clean coal last night was wrong
Sunday night’s presidential debate saw the candidates confronted with a question on energy policy by Kenneth Bone, an undecided voter whose eye-catching style made him an overnight internet sensation. In his answer, Republican nominee Donald Trump predicted that “clean coal” could supply the country’s energy needs for the next 1,000 years.
But what on earth is clean coal and is there really that much of it lying around?
The term clean coal doesn’t refer to special, clean-burning coal but rather to a set of technologies mandated by the Clean Air Act to filter harmful air chemicals and particulates emitted by coal-fired power plants. In recent years the term has been repurposed and is currently being used for newer technologies that capture and bury the huge amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when coal is burned — a method known as carbon capture and storage.
Carbon capture and storage is already being used at some coal plants, but it is prohibitively expensive, meaning it often makes no sense to install when we could rely on cheaper, better alternatives.
Ken Bone on CNN says he's more undecided than ever pic.twitter.com/TXTGtNTM3u
— Hunter Schwarz (@hunterschwarz) October 10, 2016
So, is clean coal really possible? The Sierra Club has said there’s no such thing as clean coal and there never will be. Even if it were much cheaper to capture and store carbon, burning coal generates tons of hazardous waste in the form of coal ash and scrubber sludge, containing arsenic, lead, and mercury. Extracting coal from mines also means ripping apart landscapes, polluting water and the communities that live nearby.
Besides that, coal mining is one of the most dangerous jobs out there and it is pretty clear that even the “cleanest” coal exacts huge human and environmental costs.
As for Trump’s prediction that coal could last another 1,000 years, that doesn’t seem very likely either. The U.S. has 255 billion tons of accessible coal reserves but burns almost 1 billion tons every year. In other words, we would have to close coal plants and mines at a serious pace, or else become a lot more efficient, if we want to keep clean coal burning 1,000 years into the future. But now that wind and solar are becoming cheaper than fossil fuels, it’s hard to see why we would.