About that clean coal busi­ness…

Our view: Trump is wrong about the ba­sic facts of the 21st-cen­tury en­ergy econ­omy

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONDE -

As fact-check­ers close out their re­ports on the sec­ond pres­i­den­tial de­bate — gar­gan­tuan task that it has proved to be — here’s one more false­hood that de­serves to be high­lighted: Clean coal is a myth and more a mar­ket­ing term than sci­en­tific re­al­ity. Tech­nol­ogy can cer­tainly take some of the worst pol­lu­tants out of coal emis­sions, but sci­ence has yet to pro­duce a cost-ef­fec­tive way to elim­i­nate or cap­ture car­bon diox­ide, the ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to cli­mate change, from burn­ing coal.

Yet there was Repub­li­can nominee Don­ald Trump on the stage Sun­day night talk­ing about how Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and, by ex­ten­sion, Hil­lary Clin­ton, are wag­ing a war on the en­ergy sec­tor and coal in par­tic­u­lar. The U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency “is killing these en­ergy com­pa­nies.” And­hestressed “there’s a thing called clean coal” and that un­der a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, he would re­store coal min­ing jobs in states like West Vir­ginia. (He also spoke about for­eign com­pa­nies buy­ing up fail­ing en­ergy “plants” and “re­jig­ger­ing” them, but no­body seems to know what he was talk­ing about, so we’ll just leave the gob­bledy­gook alone).

This isn’t the first time a mem­ber of the GOP ticket has been talk­ing up clean coal. In­di­ana Gov. Mike Pence, his run­ning mate, has been tout­ing coal for years and spoke of a “war on coal” re­peat­edly dur­ing the vice pres­i­den­tial de­bate. The Repub­li­can plat­form pro­motes clean coal, too. It’s be­come a mantra for many con­ser­va­tives, even if it is an oxy­moron.

Back in this cir­cum­stance called re­al­ity, what’s ac­tu­ally hap­pened in the en­ergy sec­tor is that much of the world has been mov­ing away from coal for decades. U.S. min­ing jobs have been mostly in de­cline since the1980s. Thechief cul­prit isn’t the EPA, it’s com­pe­ti­tion within the en­ergy sec­tor. The rise of hy­draulic frac­tur­ing and hor­i­zon­tal drilling has raised do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion of nat­u­ral gas and oil while OPEC coun­tries have been pro­duc­ing more oil as well. Cleaner-burn­ing nat­u­ral gas is sim­ply a cheaper, less-pol­lut­ing op­tion for power plants and man­u­fac­tur­ers, and that’s proven costly for the coal min­ing com­pa­nies, as many have slipped into bank­ruptcy.

But this isn’t a bad thing. While it’s cre­ated eco­nomic hard­ship for un­em­ployed min­ers, it’s also cre­ated op­por­tu­nity in states (in­clud­ing West Vir­ginia, in­ci­den­tally) with un­der­ground shale de­posits that can be tapped by frack­ing. Re­cov­er­able oil re­serves within the U.S. now sur­pass those of Saudi Ara­bia. That’s al­ready given the coun­try a “big league” — to use a fa­vorite Trump de­scrip­tion — eco­nomic boost.

Still, the U.S. needs to take the threat from air pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change se­ri­ously. If we ar­ti­fi­cially boost de­mand for coal sim­ply to put min­ers back to work, the coun­try will pay through the nose — not only in higher en­ergy costs but in hu­man health and lives. The tox­ins pro­duced by burn­ing coal, such as sul­fur diox­ide, ground-level ozone, heavy me­tals and par­tic­u­lates, con­trib­ute to four out of the five lead­ing causes of death, in­clud­ing heart dis­ease and can­cer. And­cli­mate change could prove just as life-threat­en­ing as rising sea lev­els, record-break­ing heat­waves, droughts, floods, de­clin­ing food pro­duc­tion and other re­lated ef­fects take hold.

None of those prob­lems go away if we sim­ply refuse to believe in them. Coal’s de­cline isn’t a prod­uct of pol­i­tics, it’s a func­tion of chem­istry. Per­haps sci­ence can pro­duce the means to tap the ben­e­fits of coal with­out its enor­mous short­com­ings, but it can’t right now. A clean coal plant un­der con­struc­tion in Mis­sis­sippi has gone $4 bil­lion over bud­get and doesn’t yet func­tion. A costly project in Illi­nois has been aban­doned. China is in­vest­ing in the con­cept, and we ought to wish them luck, as the chances for suc­cess ap­pear slim. At this stage, it would surely be cheaper to sim­ply plant trees to off­set car­bon pro­duc­tion than ex­pect coal to burn cleanly.

Now, per­haps the bla­tant lies can­di­dates like Mr. Trump spout about en­ergy won’t make scream­ing front page head­lines or breath­less ca­ble TV news cut-ins like shock­ing videos or hate­ful anti-im­mi­gra­tion rants, but they should, con­sid­er­ing the stakes in­volved. A re­cent re­port con­cludes that if no fur­ther ac­tion is taken, cli­mate change will cost the mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion $8.8 tril­lion. That makes global warm­ing the sin­gle great­est eco­nomic threat fac­ing young peo­ple to­day, and they (in­clud­ing the now-fa­mous, red-sweater-clad Ken­neth Bone who posed the ques­tion about en­ergy pol­icy at the St. Louis de­bate) de­serve to hear the truth about it.

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