Lentis/Clean Coal

“Clean Coal” is a contested concept in the United States, touted by proponents as a reality and criticized by opponents as an oxymoron. This chapter explores the idea of clean coal at the social interface of technology by reviewing major participants and the relationships among them, examining a pilot project in the US, and deriving lessons from this case that apply beyond the energy sector.

What is Clean Coal?Edit

Carbon capture and storage at a coal-fired power plant

Clean coal refers to practices that reduce environmental burdens of the coal industry by sequestering power plant emissions. Clean coal technologies include controls to directly capture sulfur and nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gas emissions emissions in plants;[1] coal gasification processes that allow for more efficient carbon dioxide (CO2) removal prior to combustion; and geologic carbon sequestration, in which this captured carbon is injected deep underground in saline aquifers. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) integrates the capture of CO2 from emissions with GCS technologies and has attracted considerable interest in recent years as a key tool for climate change mitigation.[2]


File:CCT Mobile Classroom (5036266652).jpg
ACCCE's mobile classroom promoting clean coal technologies

American Coalition for Clean Coal ElectricityEdit

ACCCE, the coal industry's trade association, claims to hold the facts on clean coal. The organization argues that coal is "essential to providing affordable, reliable electricity for millions of U.S. consumers and a growing domestic economy."[3] They further contend that clean coal technologies have already reduced coal-fired power plant emissions by 90%, allowing coal to remain America's dominant fuel source with minimal environmental costs.[4] President Mike Duncan claims coal has "fueled the American Dream" and is committed to preserving coal-driven energy production in an "environmentally sound way".[5] This clip from their 2008 holiday ad campaign summarizes ACCCE's faith in the economic and environmental sustainability of clean coal.

United Mine Workers of AmericaEdit

The UMWA, a union including coal miners, healthcare workers, truck drivers, and clean coal technicians, supports preserving jobs in the industry and addressing climate change through clean coal technologies.[6] President Cecil Roberts has stated current policies are too focused on removing coal from the energy sector "instead of removing emissions from the atmosphere"[7] He and the UMWA promote clean coal as a means of reducing emissions while maintaining jobs.

Obama Administration and Environmental Protection AgencyEdit

President Barack Obama contends the US must become a leader in clean coal technologies to address climate change and advance American markets.[8] Under his administration, the EPA proposed new regulations imposing strict caps on carbon emissions over the next 25 years.[9] This Clean Power Plan, introduced in June 2014, will require coal companies to retrofit most existing plants with CCS technologies. The associated expense and technical limitations would force many older plants to close.[10] The ACCCE is strongly opposed to the regulations, citing increased electricity prices with negligible impact on climate change mitigation.[11]


File:Clean Coal = Michigan Jobs (4475663877).jpg
A sign at a local restaurant supports clean coal technologies

Some environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and Clean Air Task Force, do not support coal as a fuel source but recognize the US will continue to rely on it for the foreseeable future. While these groups prioritize a shift to renewable energy, they contend clean coal technologies are critical to prevent further damage from emissions while this gradual transition occurs.[12][13][14]


Public support for clean coal is prevalent in regions with coal-centered economies. Citizens for Clean Coal, sponsored by ACCCE, traveled to these regions from 2008-2009 and posted videos documenting public sentiments on clean coal technology. The videos reveal that diverse groups, including workers and their families, college students, and both Democrats and Republicans, support clean coal to maintain low energy prices and job security or to serve as a bridge between fossil fuels and renewables.


Physicians for Social ResponsibilityEdit

In a 2009 report entitled Coal's Assault on Human Health, Physicians for Social Responsibility stated that coal byproducts harm every major organ system and contribute to the five leading causes of death in the United States.[15] The organization calls for a health-driven energy policy in the United States, including strict caps on carbon dioxide emissions; the end of new construction of coal-fired power plants; reduction of fossil fuel emissions; funding for energy-efficient conservation measures and renewable energy resources; and shifting jobs from coal to the renewable energy sector.[16]

Politicians - John Barrasso and Heidi HeitkampEdit

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal, John Barrasso, Junior Senator from Wyoming, and Heidi Heitkamp, Junior Senator from North Dakota, state their position against regulations that will push the coal industry toward clean coal technologies. They fault the EPA for introducing the strict June 2014 regulations during a recession because they will cut jobs and harm the economy. The senators are in favor of moving towards cleaner energy sources, but only if jobs are not sacrificed.[17]

Mountaintop removal mine in Pike County, KY


Other environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the "Reality" Coalition, and Appalachian Voices, work to eliminate coal a fuel source due to health and environmental risks. In 2010, the Sierra Club launched their Beyond Coal campaign with the goal of retiring one-third of US power plants by 2020 and replacing them with alternative clean energy sources.[18] Greenpeace urges communities to "[stand] up for their right to clean air, clean water and a future free of pollution health risks, destructive and dangerous mining practices and the threat of global warming."[19] Sponsored by a coalition of environmental organizations, an advertising campaign supported by www.ThisIsReality.org, was launched to "[tell] the truth about coal today."[20] In one advertisement, the viewer is given a tour of a clean coal facility - a barren field. Another video advertises clean coal air freshener. Both ads reflect their view of clean coal as an oxymoron. As a part of its efforts to protect "the land, air and water of the central and southern Appalachian region" by "focusing on reducing coal’s impact on the region,"[21] Appalachian Voices seeks to end mountaintop removal mining (MTR) that "has a devastating impact on the region's economy, ecology, and communities."[22]

The PublicEdit

Across the US, protesters have voiced their opposition to the environmental and health risks of using coal as an energy source, bearing signs with slogans such as "We all live downstream from coal ash," "We deserve clean water," and "Clean air and healthy communities: No coal exports."[23][24][25] In 2008, citizens rallied in Knoxville, TN against federal legislation promoting the continued use of coal, carrying signs reading "Out of sight, out of mind is not always true" and "Carbon capture and storage does not make clean coal." They referred to new incentives for developing clean coal technologies as a "federal boondoggle to promote the continued use of coal to produce electricity." Protesters further argued that governments and energy companies should fund clean, renewable energy sources rather than "cleaning" coal production via practices like CCS.[26]

Case Study - Kemper County, MississippiEdit

Kemper County Plant

Southern Company has invested over $5.2 billion in a clean coal power plant regarded by some as “scary” and others as “a game changer.” The new plant will utilize a solvent to temporarily absorb the carbon dioxide emissions produced by burning coal. In a small chamber, the molecules are released and compressed into a liquid and piped back into nearby oil fields. The Kemper Project has been under construction since 2010, and as time progresses, support continues to fade. When the upgrade broke ground in 2010, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour claimed the plant would "produce low-cost, reliable power for Mississippians for decades and decades to come...with an absolutely unprecedented technology.”[27] The Sierra Club strongly supported the project in its infancy, but has recently attempted to block the plant’s completion and opening. Residents in the area agree, as consumers' bills have risen 15% annually because of mounting construction costs.[28] Thomas Blanton, an opposition leader heading a lawsuit against Southern Company, argues the project is "taking big bets with other people’s money" and that sequestering carbon from the plant's emissions in nearby oil fields is "a myth."[29] The EPA claims the plant's advances are the way of the future,[30] but amid these technical and social challenges, will clean coal technology actually last?

Generalizations and ConclusionsEdit

Status Quo BiasEdit

The US has relied on coal for centuries as a source of jobs and fuel. Thus as consumption increases and the EPA develops stricter regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, diverse groups from either side of the issue are seeking solutions that would require minimal change to existing behavior and infrastructure. Status quo bias embodies this desire to resist change and maintain current lifestyles.[31] In the case of CCS, engineers are tweaking and manipulating existing processes to allow for the continued use of coal instead of designing a new system that targets the root of the problem: environmental damage caused by excessive fossil fuel consumption.

Lesson Applied to Money TransferEdit

This is not the first time that the US has failed to adapt to changing times. In the 1970s, the computer language COBOL created what Planet Money called “the [incredibly slow] invisible plumbing of our economy.”[32] When a money transfer is requested, the amount enters an Automated Clearing House (ACH) where the transfer is registered and sorted and passed onto the next bank. This can take up to a week, prompting interest in expediting the process. In the United Kingdom, the Faster Payments Service initiative replaced the old system after complaints from impatient users, providing British citizens with the luxury of instantaneous transfers. This inspired American banks to collectively vote for same-day banking, but it failed to pass a supermajority, as the transition would involve “a major” overhaul of the US banking system and present greater risks of fraud.[33] The EPA has been supporting and demanding carbon dioxide sequestration technology just as the bank customers have been complaining about the delays induced by the ACH. Just as same-day processing is not a solution to the transfer times, CCS is only a fix because of the complications a entirely new system would introduce. Thus, even when new technologies that "reinvent the wheel" are the most effective solution, social inclination to resist unprecedented change can prevent implementation.


Whether "clean coal" is in fact a reality or nothing more than an oxymoron remains to be seen, but interactions among participants will shape the trajectory of these novel technologies and the US energy sector. Europe has engaged in more widespread testing and implementation of clean coal technologies, but it is still uncertain whether they will be sustainable and publicly accepted long-term. Regardless, the ways in which diverse groups have responded to fundamental challenges to the coal industry offer insight into social norms and behavior that elucidates other cases at the social interface of technology.


  1. Franco, A., & Diaz, A.R. (2009). The future challenges for “clean coal technologies”: Joining efficiency increase and pollutant emission control. Energy, 34(3). www.sciencedirect.com
  2. CATF (2009). Clean Air Task Force. Coal without carbon: An investment plan for federal action. www.catf.us
  3. ACCCE (2014). American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Issues and Policy. http://americaspower.org
  4. ACCCE (2014). American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Who we are. http://www.americaspower.org
  5. ACCCE. (2012, Aug 16). American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Mike Duncan Named ACCCE President and CEO. www.americaspower.org
  6. UMWA (2014). United Mine Workers of America. Act Now. www.umwa.org
  7. Hasty, Michael. Greenwashing Coal. www.wvhighlands.org
  8. Bastasch, Michael. (2014, Feb 11). EPA ‘clean coal’ rule would increase power prices by 70 or 80 percent. www.dailycaller.com
  9. EPA (2014) United States Environmental Protection Agency. Regulatory impact analysis for the proposed carbon pollution guidelines for existing power plants and emission standards for modified and reconstructed power plants. www.epa.gov
  10. Davenport, C. (2014, November 16). Obama builds environmental legacy with 1970 law. The New York Times. [http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/27/us/without-passing-a-single-law-obama-crafts-bold-enviornmental- policy.html www.nytimes.com]
  11. ACCCE (2014, December 1). American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity Comments on EPA’s Proposed “Carbon Pollution Emission Guidelines for Existing Stationary Sources: Electricity Utility Generating Units.” www.americaspower.org
  12. Beineke, F. (2010, February 3). National Resources Defense Council. There is no "clean coal," but Obama is right about an energy and climate bill. switchboard.nrdc.org
  13. EDF (2014). Environmental Defense Fund. Carbon capture and sequestration: Storing carbon to reduce emissions. www.edf.org
  14. CATF (2009). Clean Air Task Force. Coal without carbon: An investment plan for federal action. www.catf.us
  15. Physicians for Social Responsibility. (2009). Coal's assault on human health. (p. 3)
  16. Physicians for Social Responsibility. (2009). Coal's assault on human health. (pp.12-13)
  17. Barrasso, J. & Heitkamp, H. (2014, June 2). The new anti-coal rules will cut jobs and hurt the economy. The Wall Street Journal.
  18. Sierra Club. (n.d.). About us.
  19. Quit Coal. (n.d.). About Quit Coal.
  20. National Resources Defense Council. (2010). "Reality" Coalition launches campaign debunking "clean coal" myth. [Press release]. http://www.nrdc.org/media/2008/081204a.asp
  21. Appalachian Voices. (n.d.). About us. appalachianvoices.org/about/
  22. Appalachian Voices. (n.d.). End mountaintop removal coal mining.
  23. Peidmont earth first (2014, March 4). Coal ash protest at governor’s mansion tomorrow. [Web log comment]. piedmontearthfirst.org/tag/protest/
  24. Sturgis, S. (2010, Oct 8). Coal companies charged with massive violations of water pollution laws in Kentucky. Grist. www.grist.org
  25. Epstein, L.C. (2012, April 19). Oregonians rally against coal exports in Salem. Portland State Vanguard. psuvanguard.com
  26. Brass, L. (2008, May 6). Knoxville News Sentinel. knoxnews.com/business/capturing-awareness
  27. Drajem, Mark. (2014). Coal's Best Hope is Costly Power Plant in Mississippi. Bloomberg. www.bloomberg.com
  28. Smith, R. (2013). Mississippi Plant Shows the Cost of 'Clean Coal.' Wall Street Journal. www.wsj.com
  29. Drajem, Mark. (2014). Coal's Best Hope is Costly Power Plant in Mississippi. Bloomberg. www.bloomberg.com
  30. Mufson, S. (2014). Intended Showcase of clean-coal future hits snags. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/
  31. Samuelson, W., & Zeckhouser, R., (1988). Status Quo Bias in Decision Making. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/
  32. Planet Money. (2013). Episode 489: The Invisible Plumbing of Our Economy. www.npr.org
  33. Dang, M. (2013). Why It Takes So Long in the US to Transfer Money. thebillfold.com