June 24, 2011

“Clean coal” technology years away, but it could reduce Cherry Point bulk terminal’s impact

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By Kimberly Cauvel and Marianne Graff
Western Washington University

Washington state is eliminating coal-fired power in an effort to reduce harmful emissions. China is attempting to reduce emissions using new technology for burning coal.

“Individual coal plants have different efficiencies and pollution rates. A plant in China may be more or less efficient than one in Washington based on the technology at the plant,” said Justin Brant, climate change policy analyst for the Washington Department of Ecology. “That said, climate change is a global issue and greenhouse gases produced in China have the same effect as those produced in Washington or anywhere else.”

Clean coal technology includes a variety of ways to reduce emissions. The five major emissions associated with coal burning are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, mercury and carbon dioxide, said Brad Tomer, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Major Demonstrations.

Technologies exist or are currently under development to control these five types of emissions. Of particular controversy is the existence of carbon capture and storage: a process the Pew Center on Global Climate Change estimates could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent.

“It’s not futuristic in the sense of pie in the sky,” Tomer said.  

Carbon capture and storage has its skeptics. Craig Benjamin of the Environmental Priorities Coalition said, “That doesn’t exist. It’s kind of like a unicorn: people like to talk about it — they’ve been talking about it for 30 years — but there’s no example of it.”

Carbon capture and storage would require separating carbon dioxide from other gases emitted during the burning process and storing it underground to prevent its release into the atmosphere. The National Mining Association predicts it will be available for commercial use between 2020 and 2025.

In November 2009, the presidents of the U.S. and China established the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center to promote clean coal technology, including large-scale carbon capture and storage. The center will support joint research by scientists and engineers from both countries and conduct multiple studies on carbon capture and storage at coal-fired plants in China.

“Carbon capture and storage technology for electric power generation is still in the developmental stages,” Carol Raulston, senior vice president of communications for the National Mining Association, wrote in an email. “As things are going now, China has the lead on moving this technology forward as they are building new coal plants faster than any other country and have, therefore, the platform upon which to test carbon capture and storage.”

Kimberly Cauvel is a Western Washington University senior majoring in environmental journalism. Marianne Graff is a Western Washington University senior majoring in journalism.

This story is part of a package produced by the students in the Journalism 450 class at Western Washington University. They were primarily edited by WWU Professor Carolyn Nielsen. InvestigateWest co-founder and senior environmental correspondent Robert McClure advised the students when they were partway through the reporting process, and helped prepare the final stories for publication. View the remaining elements of the package here.

One thought on ““Clean coal” technology years away, but it could reduce Cherry Point bulk terminal’s impact

  1. This headline seems misleading, based on my research into the issue of coal plant emissions. It is widely acknowledged, even by those in the coal industry, that "clean coal" or "green coal" is not a technology that is economically feasible and won't be for the foreseeable future, even after substantial governmental and private investment in research.

    See for example, the article posted on the coal industry's clearinghouse for Asian coal consumption (the destination for Cherry Point exports) at http://www.ecoalchina.com, more specifically http://www.nacec.com.cn/english/knowledge/884741.shtml, which says: "The public has become more concerned about global warming which has led to new legislation. The coal industry has responded by running advertising touting clean coal in an effort to counter negative perceptions and claiming more than $50 billion towards the development and deployment of "traditional" clean coal technologies over the past 30 years; and promising $500 million towards carbon capture and storage research and development. The expenditure has been unsuccessful to date in that there is not a single commercial scale coal fired power station in the US that captures and stores more than token amounts of CO2."

    Thus, no private investors have signed up for it. The huge investments in research have not yielded a return on investment and are not expected to do so for the foreseeable future. So why your headline holding out hope for mitigation of Cherry Point Asia impacts?

    Your headline implies the Cherry Point facility might be acceptable because of the promise one day of developing cost-efficient technology. The article really isn't about Cherry Point itself. Its about the state of research into cleaner coal plant emissions. While mentioning Cherry Point in the headline might be a journalistic device to get people to read the article, I hope you will consider whether it could also be interpreted as advocacy.

    Based on the results of the research on clean coal so far, after substantial investments, a more balanced headline would have been: "Clean Coal Technology not Likely to Reduce Cherry Point Facility's Impact in Foreseeable Future." That would have given you the same "hook" to readers concerned about Cherry Point.

    As I understand it, the articles and headlines written by students on "Investigate West" were reviewed and edited by WWU professors and Robert McClure. Did they edit and approve this headline? If so, would you agree to publish an article about the headline itself as a learning tool for journalism students, looking at whether this type of journalistic device may have on the credibility of the journalist or the paper?

    After doing further research on the information in the article, I came away with the impression Investigate West might have a pro-Cherry Point bias. Please reply to my email. Thank you. Tom