The Coal Nightmare  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The ABC's Four Corners program tonight had an interesting episode on clean coal and the coal industry - The Coal Nightmare.

Two months ago in Italy the leaders of the world's eight leading industrial nations agreed on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent over the next 40 years. It's a noble objective but for many it is nothing but a pipe dream and the reason is simple.

Each of those leaders knows that a large proportion of those gases come from burning coal. They also know that coal production and its use is projected to rise by at least 40 per cent by 2030.

"There's going to be an increase in energy demand of 40 per cent by 2030. China alone is building the equivalent of Australia's coal fired power system three times over every year." Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson

It's a simple fact that if the world is to have any chance of meeting its greenhouse gas reduction targets and continue to burn coal it must find a technology to trap and store carbon dioxide and other noxious gases - technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

As Four Corners shows, governments and scientists have known this for much of the past decade. In the United States a major project to create clean coal is called FutureGen. In China it's GreenGen. Australia also has equivalent programs. The question is, what progress have they made?

Travelling to China and the United States reporter Liz Jackson finds that after a decade of talking there is no large-scale project in existence.

In the United States she uncovers documents that show that while the government has given strong public support to clean coal, in private it has been a different story. Four Corners has documents that claim the time lost through the government's failure to properly back FutureGen could mean "clean coal" will not become a reality before 2040. Which is bad news for CO2 reduction.

Beyond the corridors of power there is also a growing community backlash to the idea that carbon dioxide should be pumped below ground creating the possibility of earth movements or serious carbon leakage.

In China, now the world's biggest polluter, the attempts to create clean coal technology are only just getting under way. China believes it will have a fully operating "clean coal" fired power plant in place by the middle of the next decade, but it just doesn't know quite where or how it will store the captured carbon dioxide.

There's another problem too. To make an impact on the current rate of atmospheric pollution, old power stations will have to be retro-fitted with the new technologies. For China and the United States that would mean a massive investment and a dramatic rise in the price of electricity.

As one advisor to the Chinese government told Four Corners, carbon capture and storage is not commercially viable and probably won't be for 20 years.
For a coal exporting country like Australia, this is grim news. For that reason the Labor government has given $2.4 billion dollars for research into clean coal. The fact remains there is still no project that is shovel-ready.


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