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Clean coal. The phrase is on the lips of President Obama, the coal industry and now a new anti-coal commercial by the Academy Award-winning Coen brothers.
The Coen commercial and the coal industry ads it spoofs are bringing to the airwaves the debate that has been raging on the ground: Can coal be a clean energy source?
Coal advocates say that the Coen commercial is insulting to American ingenuity, and that coal has a key role to play in America's energy future. Industry ads feature everyday people saying that they believe in technology, and that without energy from clean coal in the future, "we may have to say goodbye to the American way of life we all know and love."
Brian Hardwick, spokesman for the Reality Coalition that paid for the Coen commercials, said that several national environmental groups hatched the idea to counter the coal industry's messages.
"It is far from clean, and we as a society cannot afford to hang our hat on the illusion that this industry is trying to sell us," Hardwick said. "We've got to quickly move to producing electricity in a way that doesn't also kill the planet."
The coalition's ad agency wanted to use humor to get viewers' attention. It presented the concept and sample scripts to the Coens, who spent two days in early February directing a series of commercials.
The first spot debuted two weeks ago and is airing nationally, said Hardwick, mainly on cable television, including CNN, MSNBC, and the Comedy Channel.
It shows a classic pitchman holding a can of "clean coal" air freshener that he gives to a housewife. She proceeds to spray the living room, spreading dark clouds that send her husband and two children into fits of coughing. After the pitchman assures viewers that the product can be trusted because it's supported by the coal industry, the picture turns to black and concludes with a tagline: "In reality, there's no such thing as clean coal."
The coalition's website also shows a behind-the-scenes segment with the Coens, including portions of a second ad that will feature clean coal laundry detergent, a tar-like substance being poured into a washing machine.
In a statement, the Coens said: "We were excited to be part of this important project and tell another side of the 'clean' coal story."
A national trade group for the coal industry dismissed the ads as negative and unhelpful when the nation needs to maintain affordable and reliable power to pull out of its economic tailspin. "At the end of the day, these commercials have very little to say," said Joe Lucas, spokesman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. "They take a swipe at American ingenuity by saying that clean coal technology does not exist and cannot exist."
Clean coal used to mean removing sulfur dioxide, soot and other pollutants from power plant emissions after coal was burned, said Elizabeth Wilson, University of Minnesota assistant professor of energy, environmental policy and law. Now clean coal means removing global warming gases, especially carbon dioxide, she said. That involves separate technologies that capture the gas, pipe it somewhere, and inject it underground for storage. Demonstration projects around the world are doing some of those things, said Wilson, but more research is needed. "The question is putting it all together and making a plant work and understanding what that will cost," she said.
Answers expected in a decade
Industry officials expect it will take 10 to 15 years to see whether cleaner coal technology will be feasible, whether it can be used to retrofit some of the nation's 600 coal-fired plants, and how its costs will compare with nuclear, wind, solar and other fuel sources.
Michael Noble, executive director of St. Paul-based Fresh Energy, said that coal's challenges are greater than just reducing global warming gases.
"Coal does not arrive at a power plant on a white pillow," he said. "There should also be prohibitions against blowing tops off mountains in West Virginia to mine it," he said, and requirements for safer coal ash disposals.
On the edge of the clean coal debate is a more immediate concern: What to do with proposals from utilities around the country that want to build traditional coal-fired plants during the next decade or two before carbon removal systems have been tested and evaluated. Proponents of the $1.3 billion Big Stone II plant on the South Dakota-Minnesota border say that additional electricity is needed soon and that carbon-capture technology can be added later, if necessary.
But environmentalists say that the era of traditional coal plants is over, and that demand for electricity in Minnesota can be met by conservation, efficiency and rapid development of more wind farms.
The future of Big Stone II is unclear. The project received a setback when the Environmental Protection Agency rejected an air quality permit application from South Dakota in late January and directed state officials to revise it within 90 days.
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388