Greenhouse-gas-belching coal the energy source of the future? Power Workers' Union ads last week pumping the virtues of "clean coal" aren't exactly coming clean on the eco and health hazards. There's a lot more dirt on this fantasy tech than the union is coughing up.
1 The claim Clean coal tech reduces smog emissions by 96.4 per cent and mercury emissions by 80 per cent. Volatile organic compounds and particulate matter are reduced to virtually zero.
The real dirt Nice try. Clean coal tech doesn't actually exist. No working techologies can eliminate harmful emissions from burning coal. "Clean coal" is a catch-all term to describe various technologies consisting of scrubbers and filters that do a lousy job of reducing pollutants released by coal plants, typically by less .5 per cent.
2 The claim We already have one of the cleanest coal plants in North America up and running at Lambton Generating Station.
The real dirt Now that's a whopper. Lambton is Ontario's second-largest source of nitrogen oxides, greenhouse gases, airborne mercury, particulate matter and cancer-causing arsenic and other pollutants. According to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, in 2004 Lambton produced as much air pollution as 1.2 million cars.
3 The claim Coal is cheaper than natural gas.
The real dirt Yes, if you don't take into account its total health and environmental costs. When those are factored in (every year the province's coal plants kill 668 people, cause 928 hospital admissions, 1,100 emergency room visits and 333,660 minor illnesses), the real cost of coal-fired electricity (16.4 cents per kilowatt hour) is 67 per cent greater than natural gas (9.8 cents per kilowatt hour).
4 The claim With clean coal tech we can reduce CO2 emissions by 30 per cent simply by mixing biomass like corn and wood pellets with coal. Soon we'll be able to cleanly burn garbage rather than bury it.
The real dirt Yeah, in your dreams. According to a paper prepared for the Library of Parliament last December, "Much research and development is needed before emerging [clean coal] technologies... can become commercially viable. The widespread deployment of these technologies in the near term is unlikely." No matter how you slice it - or mix it - coal remains the dirtiest fossil fuel on earth. That's why we stopped using it as our main source of energy in the 1970s.
5 The claim Switching to natural gas will cost us $11 billion more than installing clean coal technologies.
The real dirt The PWU would rather the province blow $3 billion of tax-payers' money researching a going-nowhere tech like clean coal. Besides, who's saying natural gas is a panacea? It should only be viewed as a transition tech to a future 100-per-cent-renewable electricity system. Ontario can phase out coal, improve health and the environment and secure the energy supply through aggressive conservation programs and power from water, wind and sun.
Sources: Ontario clean Air Alliance, Ontario Medical Association, Parliamentary Information and research service, Power Workers' Union, Energy Information Administration and Natural Resources Canada