Is clean coal the answer to our energy needs?

As oil has become expensive, coal remains abundant and cheap. But something must be done to make it cleaner. So how far away are we from a solution, particularly in the energy-hungry American market?

Yes, coal prices have continued to rise across the globe. But of course, this pales in comparison to the continued run-up in petroleum, which has virtually paralyzed the wallets of many oil-reliant Americans.

The idea of a coal shortage is virtually unthinkable. We have roughly 275 billion tons of recoverable coal, enough for us to burn for the next two and a half centuries if we needed it. So while the next generation might not have the oil to run their cars and trucks, the lights at the house will stay on thanks to coal power.

If this were the end of the story, coal would be sitting pretty. But the black rock is under attack from governments, scientists and ordinary citizens throughout the world. And with no end in sight, our main source of electricity is in serious jeopardy.

The prolific use of coal as a power generating fuel is causing massive damage to the planet in the form of carbon dioxide emissions. This is not a political statement it's been proven over and over again by scientists and accepted by governments and the United Nations.

Today, oil we burn in our vehicles and use for power generation is the number one source of CO2 emissions. However, half of the excess CO2 civilization has contributed to the air is from coal. And as you are aware, oil use will most likely decrease from this point forward due to supply and pricing constraints.

It is clear that coal is the dirty, cheap energy culprit the world needs to fix. President Bush and both major-party candidates in the White House race have advocated the development and use of new coal technology that would reduce CO2 emissions. And politicians on both sides of the aisle have supported efforts to develop clean coal technology.

Clean coal: true solution is not yet here

Unfortunately, a viable solution is decades away.

Take carbon capture technology, for instance. Carbon capture techniques are designed to take the CO2 emissions from power plants and inject them into the rocks or other geological formations. This process would keep the harmful CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere.

While it looks good on paper, industry analysts believe this technology is at least 10 to 15 years away from commercial use. Others are questioning whether CCS will ever become viable. A New York Times article from earlier this year asks precisely that, describing the government yanking support from an Illinois site that was supposed to pioneer the technology.

The article continues, citing utility projects in Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Washington State that have been canceled or postponed. The piece continued with even more evidence that questions the program's viability:

Coal is abundant and cheap, assuring that it will continue to be used. But the failure to start building, testing, tweaking and perfecting carbon capture and storage means that developing the technology may come too late to make coal compatible with limiting global warming.

"It's a total mess," said Daniel M. Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

A total mess? This doesn't sound promising at all

Two important conclusions must be drawn from this evidence. First, we see no reduction in the volume of coal used to generate power in the foreseeable future. It is also clear that a truly viable CO2 reducing solution needs to present itself ASAP. Green laws sprouting up across the European Union and the United States will require a change.

Electricity demand in western states continues to rise. Power distributors are desperate to keep up with demand. Add to the mix strict environmental laws and you're looking at a world of hurt for the Western United States.

By Greg Guenthner for Whiskey and Gunpowder

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