The original fossil fuel is back in the spotlight, under fire for being the biggest contributor to climate change (when burned in power plants). In an attempt to polish coal's tarnished image, the industry has launched a series of ads and other PR efforts (to the tune of “Jingle Bells”):

Frosty the coal man is a jolly happy soul
He's abundant here in America and he helps our economy roll
Frosty the coal man's getting cleaner every day
He's affordable and adorable and helps workers keep their pay

Beyond caroling coal available online (isn't a lump of coal at Christmas traditionally a bad thing?), a slew of clean coal advertisements have hit the airwaves, touting the benefits of technology that can capture and store the climate-changing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) produced when coal is burned to generate electricity.

Unfortunately, as another ad campaign points out, such technology does not exist (except for a 30 megawatt power plant in Germany.) Critics charge the energy industry has blackened its reputation by promoting a technology it has done little to support:


A new analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., found that since the inception of clean coal programs aimed at capturing CO2 earlier this decade, $3.5 billion has been spent by private companies to develop the technology via 18 projects—just a fraction (1/17) of their profits in 2007 alone, according to researcher Daniel Weiss. During that same period, these companies spent $45 million on ads for clean coal and $125 million in lobbying dollars to defeat a national renewable energy standard and federal legislation to place mandatory limits on CO2 emissions.

"Peabody Coal, Southern Company, Duke Energy, AEP and Massey Energy have created a chicken and egg global warming policy," Weiss says. "Don't require reductions until carbon capture and storage is commercialized but then they don't invest in carbon capture and storage to make it a reality."

The Bush administration, for its part, canceled its own clean coal effort FutureGen earlier this year, because it got too expensive.

It remains to be seen whether President-elect Barack Obama will resuscitate FutureGen, an advanced coal-fired power plant that was set to be located in his home state of Illinois. Several members of his new administration, including potential Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and science adviser John Holdren, have argued for its rapid development. An industry consortium known as the FutureGen Alliance has already paid $7 million to purchase a 400-acre site in Mattoon, Ill., on which to potentially construct the facility.

The International Energy Agency (an energy policy organization for the world’s 28 richest countries) estimates that the world needs to spend $20 billion in the next few years developing and deploying such clean coal technology. Australia, China and even Norway are leading the charge and it may be that such technology allows the utilization of the world's remaining coal reserves. And there's little doubt that it's needed, according to a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: developing countries like China and India will burn their coal reserves to power industry and alleviate poverty so developing cleaner ways to use it will be a global imperative.

Ultimately, however, it would be tough to make coal truly clean, not least because of mountaintop removal mining choking valleys and waterways. And yesterday, the collapse of a coal ash pond in Tennessee buried 12 houses and 400 acres—a reminder of the 129 million tons of radioactive and/or toxic waste left over after coal burning produced in the U.S. each year. Even if carbon capture from coal is developed, a risk remains of the stored CO2 seeping back out of the ground.

Further hindering clean coal efforts may be the attitudes of some folks in the energy business, like Don Blankenship, president and CEO of Massey Energy:

The coal companies and utilities are not alone in advertising: corporations from Shell to Sharp are advertising their clean energy efforts. But clean coal technology has a long way to go, no matter how you look at it.