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"Clean Coal" Really?

July 19, 2010

CHICAGO - Officials in several suburban Chicago and downstate communities are beginning to ask questions about a big investment they've made in what they had hoped would be inexpensive clean energy. The communities entered into a multi-year contract to pay for the Prairie State Energy Campus in Washington County, which is about half finished. But a recent investigation by the Chicago Tribune newspaper found huge cost overruns that threaten to double the cost to more than $4 billion and increase utility rates.

Prairie State advertises itself as a "clean coal" facility, but Howard Learner, president of the Environment and Policy Law Center, says it will create huge amounts of global warming pollution.

"It will release 13 million tons of carbon dioxide each year - that's their estimate - into the atmosphere."

Learner says he's cautiously hopeful about a new technology, carbon capture and storage (CCS), that tries to eliminate pollution by capturing the carbon dioxide from the coal processing and injecting it deep into the ground for permanent storage. Prairie State does not use CCS technology, but he says there is a plan to use such technology in a coal plant near Mattoon.

"We'll see whether it works. We'll monitor it closely and we hope that it does. But that's exactly the sort of R and D (research and development) that we ought to be having."

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, says he's skeptical of any technology that proposes to push the carbon dioxide back into the ground.

"The only proven method of keeping carbon in the ground when you're using coal is to keep the coal in the ground in the first place."

Supporters of CCS say it's the closest thing to clean coal yet. Opponents say it's not a proven technology and it's still too expensive to be considered the clean energy of the future.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL