NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Regulatory Fears Scuttle Clean Coal

May 18, 2001

Scientists and engineers have spent several decades trying to develop processes that would allow electricity producers to build nonpolluting coal-fueled plants. But experts say "clean coal" still faces formidable political, economic and technological obstacles.

So it may be many years before clean-coal-burning plants are the norm.

  • Coal contains dozens of noxious chemicals -- including lead, arsenic and other heavy metals; sulfur dioxide, which creates acid rain; nitrogen oxides, which create smog; tiny soot particles, which can invade and collect in human lungs; mercury, a toxic metal that accumulates in animals, fish and the humans who eat them; and carbon dioxide, which is a culprit in so-called global warming.
  • Since not all of these pollutants can be removed from coal, electric utilities are wary of investing in clean-coal technology -- fearing that the federal government may come along and mandate removal of some pollutant which the plant wasn't designed to handle.
  • During the 1980s, Congress appropriated $2.75 billion for the Department of Energy's Clean Coal Technology program -- and although 31 demonstration projects were sponsored, there have been no commercial orders.
  • When the Clean Air Act was passed, most of the nation's coal plants were "grandfathered in" on the assumption that older plants would soon wear out.

But many of them are still running -- a fact which riles environmental groups.

A unit of PG&E Corp. and the Southern Co. have joined the Department of Energy in the nation's ultimate coal research program -- the Zero Emissions Control Alliance. Currently a small research project at Los Alamos National Laboratory, its ambition is to trap all pollutants, achieving clean-burning coal.

Experts estimate that the most promising process now under study would take at least 20 years to develop and could double the price of electricity.

Source: John J. Fialka, "Clean Coal Exists in Name Only for Years to Come," Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2001.

For text (for WSJ subscribers)


Browse more articles on Environment Issues