unicornApparently, everybody loves clean coal. Barack Obama loves it and John McCain loves it. Joe Biden really loved it during his VP debate — and Sarah Palin loved it too.

But here’s the problem. Clean coal is very much like a unicorn: it doesn’t exist.

And because it doesn’t exist, it will not save us from climate change.

Via Kate Sheppard, Carolyn Auwaerter of 1Sky nails it:

“Clean coal” is a contradiction in terms. Conventional coal-burning power plants are the leading cause of global warming pollution in the United States. Coal lobbyists will immediately reply that they can develop coal plants in the future that will capture and sequester carbon pollution.

But this is misleading. Carbon capture and sequestration is unproven, dangerous, and exorbitantly expensive. At best, the technology will not be commercially available until 2030 and the U.S. Department of Energy calculates that installing carbon capture systems will almost double plant costs, which won’t provide any relief to Americans’ soaring utility bills.


Allow me to elaborate. There are basically two meanings of “clean coal.” The first is new conventional coal plants, which can indeed be more efficient and cleaner than the awful old ones. But even the new ones are a disaster. New coal plants are “clean” in the same way that it’s “healthy” to switch from Marlboro Reds to Camel Lights.

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

    Thanks to Eric Shen & Betty Carteret for supporting a sustainable Cascadia.

  • The other meaning of “clean coal” is happy talk about futuristic coal plants that will capture and sequester carbon. I hope these arrive someday—truly I do—but at the moment they’re far beyond the engineering horizon. The technology to capture and sequester carbon would be an excellent thing. And I’m all for it. But the potential arrival of this technology is much too risky to bet on.

    I really hope that all this “clean coal” nonsense is just empty pandering to coal-producing swing states. That’s my best case scenario. Because we need a serious carbon cap right about now. And it’s pretty hard to see how coal jibes with any realistic climate protection.

    Speaking of carbon caps, that’s another thing that Obama, McCain, Biden, and Palin all profess to agree on. But if we’re going to hitch our climate strategy to clean coal, there’s just one thing left to do: shut our eyes tight and wish with all our heart for the magic global warming unicorns to fly to our rescue!