“Clean Coal: ‘clean’ as an adjective or as a verb?” Mickey Glantz, 20 July 2010

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on July 21, 2010 with 1 Comment

The three forms of fossil fuels are coal, oil and natural gas. Coal is the dirtiest and natural gas is relatively clean. When burned, the different types of coal range from dirty to dirtiest with respect to the amount of carbon dioxide released to the air. Carbon dioxide is the leading greenhouse gas of concern.

Clean coal. What a great concept, and timely too, if it works. There is so much coal in the ground just waiting to be burned. Many industrialized and developing economies are heavily dependent on burning coal in their drive toward fulfilling their energy demands as well as needs for economic growth and development.

According to the International Energy Outlook 2009 reference case,

World coal consumption increases by 49 percent over the projection period … from 2006 to 2030. The growth rate for coal consumption is fairly even over the period, averaging 1.9 percent per year from 2006 to 2015 and 1.6 percent per year from 2015 to 2030—generally reflecting the growth trends for both world GDP and world primary energy consumption. Regionally, increased use of coal in non-OECD countries accounts for 94 percent of the total growth in world coal consumption over the entire period.

Obviously, countries will continue to burn coal to fuel their economies. What is worrisome is that some of those countries have large reserves and intend to use them such as China, India, Russia and the United States. Economically, it is the energy of choice because it is relatively cheap and accessible. The use of coal can be slowed down but not curtailed, at last not in the foreseeable future. How then to get on top of the coal burning/global warming dilemma?

I suggest that environmental groups do an about-face and embrace “Clean Coal” as our mantra. It would make the coal industry happy as pigs in mud.

OMG, what’s going on here: Mickey Glantz, an alleged tree-hugger calling for fellow citizens to support a “Clean Coal” movement. Here’s the catch; we have to be careful to use the word ‘clean’ as a verb, and not as an adjective.

Think about it. Ending up (at least hypothetically) with zero emissions to the atmosphere in the process of the burning of coal uses the word clean as an adjective. In this instance “clean coal” sounds like an achievement of the coal industry, a done deal,. But, when used as an adjective it is just a “greenwashing” slogan. Using the word clean as a verb, however, comes across as an imperative or command: (you) clean (the) coal! If Clean Coal can be defined like that, then I can easily support the concept.

The coal industry is close to being on the right path, if it would only emphasize its use of ‘clean’ as a verb. The next step for potential leaders then would be to issue marching orders to engineers around the globe to identify ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere to zero. This would be in line with the recent arguments made Duke University professor Henry Petroski in his new book “The Essential Engineer: Why science alone will not solve our global problems” (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). As Petroski suggested, “While the scientist may identify problems, it falls to the engineer to solve them.”

I believe that competitive substantial incentives to the engineering community would yield new insights into managing more effectively carbon dioxide emissions from coal burning.


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  1. Mickey,
    I caught on the play of words on your last blog and how an imperative sense changes the meaning of “clean coal” making the concept one that we would support…

    You know, a couple times in the past, I had thought about passing on the following quote after reading one of your blogs, then upon re-reading the quote, it struck as being harsh, and I hesitated not knowing how it would be received… at this time on reading “if the atmosphere had a chance to vote in the US congress”… i decided to pass it on and post it as a reflection…

    This particular quote impresses on me a sense of humility that we must have towards the earth – both humility and gratitude for all its gifts and bounties.

    From the Persian Hidden Words, by Baha’u’llah it reads:

    “O ye that are lying as dead on the couch of heedlessness! Ages have passed and your precious lives are well-nigh ended, yet not a single breath of purity hath reached Our court of holiness from you. Though immersed in the ocean of misbelief, yet with your lips ye profess the one true faith of God. Him whom I abhor ye have loved, and of My foe ye have made a friend. Notwithstanding, ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you. Were ye but to open your eyes, ye would, in truth, prefer a myriad griefs unto this joy, and would count death itself better than this life.

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