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Debunking the Myth of Clean Coal

After three decades of fighting polluters, I thought I had witnessed every shameless tactic in the public relations playbook. But in December, the coal industry surprised even me when it launched a Web-based campaign called the Clean Coal Carolers. The series of videos featured animated lumps of coal - I kid you not - singing industry-friendly versions of traditional carols. To the tune of "Frosty the Snowman," the lumps sang, "Frosty the coal man is a jolly, happy soul...There must have been some magic in clean coal technology, for when they looked for pollutants, there was nearly none to see." Hard to believe, but you can view it yourself at

The carolers were part of the coal industry's so-called clean coal campaign. Following the example of Big Tobacco, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry-funded group, is spending $45 million on advertising in an attempt to convince the American public that coal power is good for the environment. But no matter how much the industry spends on PR wizardry, it can't turn myth into reality. Saying coal is clean is like talking about healthy cigarettes. There is no such thing as clean coal.

Every single step in the coal-power cycle is dirty, beginning with extraction. The method of mountaintop-removal mining involves literally blowing off the tops mountains of and dumping the debris into valleys below. More than 700 miles of Appalachian mountain streams have been buried under the resultant waste. Meanwhile, communities must endure continuous explosions, damaged water supplies, and mine operations as close as 300 feet from homes and schools. Pollution from coal-fired plants is not only the biggest contributor to global warming, but it also contributes to 24,000 deaths a year in the United States. Even after it's burned, coal leaves a hazardous legacy. In December the nation witnessed just how dangerous coal ash waste can be when a massive spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee flooded more than 400 acres with 1 billion gallons of cancer-causing sludge. There are 1,300 similar coal ash dumps in the country, and not one of them is regulated by the federal government.

Coal is relatively cheap and abundant, and it will no doubt continue to be a part of our electricity portfolio for some time. But there are two critical ways we can reduce coal's hazards right now. The first is to demand better industry practices. We should ban mountain-removal mining, extend federal regulation to all coal ash dumps, and require that every new coal power plant built captures and sequester its global warming pollution.

The second is even more important: reducing our reliance on dirty power. The cleanest form of energy is the energy you never use. Making just 5 percent of American homes more energy-efficient would eliminate the need for almost 13 new power plants by 2030. A recent study assessing the economic impact of a proposed new coal-fired power plant in Wise County, Virginia, conducted by the market research firm AbT Associates, found that investing in efficiency instead of building the plant would meet the same electricity demand and create 2,600 more jobs than the plant, because efficiency is more labor intensive than building and running such a facility.

The Obama administration is encouraging energy conservation by using its economic stimulus policy to drive investment in weatherizing buildings and upgrading to more efficient appliances and insulation. But a national global warming law - which will put a limit on carbon pollution - is required to generate the large amounts of green energy capital we need and to force the coal industry to clean up its act. NRDC's experts are regularly briefing lawmakers on the economic benefits of climate legislation. Coal lobbyists are fighting back, but I believe that Americans' desire for creating more jobs, protecting our health, and looking toward a cleaner future will prevail over industry PR flaks and their singing lumps of coal.

image of Frances Beinecke
Frances Beinecke is the president of NRDC and has worked with the organization for more than 30 years. Prior to becoming the president in 2006, Frances was the executive director for eight years, during which time NRDC's membership doubled and the st... READ MORE >

If the coal industry succeeds in sequestering CO2 from coal-fired energy plants will the energy it produces from such plants be cost-effective?