The Myth of “Clean Coal”: Another Expensive Boondoggle

If WC had his way, not another lump of coal would be burned in the United States for any purpose. The stuff is so bad for the environment in so many ways that it cannot responsibly be used as a fuel any longer. Whether it’s the mining, the burning, the inefficiency or the disposal of the ash, the stuff devastates the environment. Coal is “cheap” only if you ignore all of those horrifically high, hidden (or ignored) costs.

Healy II - A Bad Idea That Just Got Worse

Healy II – A Bad Idea That Just Got Worse

But that hasn’t stopped the government from trying to invent “clean coal.” Alaskans will remember the Healy Clean Coal Plant, the $300 million experiment in “clean coal” at Healy, Alaska. Depending on who you listen to, it either never worked right, could have worked right or was never supposed to work right. Golden Valley Electric Company purchased the mothballed plant for $44 million, sand another $100 million or so into it and now it runs as a “Not Clean Coal” plant. Healy II was supposed to be “clean” in the sense that the nitrous oxides and sulfur oxides would be dramatically reduced, and particulates – ash – significantly reduced. About $350 million later, Alaskans have a plant that isn’t “clean” in the intended sense. And Healy II continues to pump out at least twice as much CO2 per BTU as oil or gas, contributing to global warming which, wait for it, impacts Alaska first and hardest.

Kemper Plant, De Kalb, Mississippi

Kemper Plant, De Kalb, Mississippi, Via WikiCommons

But Healy II was a cheap date with the “clean coal” oxymoron, at least in comparison to Miss Power. The New York Times has a long feature on Southern Company’s boondoggle. Miss Power is more ambitious, and proposes a definition of “clean coal” that has nearly zero emissions. The idea is to capture all of those nasty emissions and inject them into oil fields to increase oil field production. The original project cost was estimated to be $2.4 billion. The cost has ballooned to $6.7 billion, with no end in sight. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating, and the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to allow Miss power to steal finance the cost overruns from the ratepayers, leaving a $577 million hole in Miss Power’s finances. The Times article describes a toxic work environment, a seriously flawed project and an unbelievable sinkhole for money. Call WC a cynic, but his best guess at the final outcome will be a mothballed facility, a bankrupt Mississippi Power and significantly higher utility rates for the customers.

WC’s grandfather used to tell WC you couldn’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.1 All the money in the world, not even $6 billion and counting, can make “clean coal” truly clean. Even if Miss Power were to work perfectly starting tomorrow, it’s an incomplete solution, ignoring the environmental damage is mining coal and the toxic sludge produced in burning coal. And WC would give long odds that the Kemper Plant will never operate as advertised.

Yes, WC understands the coal mining industry would be displaced. WC understands that Big Tobacco took a hit when confronted with the truth. And the slaveholders in the Old South took a beating when the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were adopted. Yes, coal mining is a “way of life,” although a dirty and dangerous one. It’s just that we can’t afford it any longer.


  1. More generally, “It is not possible to produce something refined, admirable, or valuable from something which is unrefined, unpleasant, or of little or no value. When Grandpa Mike got older, a couple of times he said “A silk purse into a sow’s ear.” Which, of course, is untrue.