Hopefully, the sarcastic commercials delivering the message that there is no such thing as “clean coal” have run their course. Issued from the environmental left, they make the same mistake as an earlier campaign from the conservative right assailing "safe sex." Both are cases of shallow science education and black-and-white reasoning.
It is true that condom use is not 100 percent "safe," mainly due to operator error, so to speak. Yet condom use does cut down transmission of STDs and particularly AIDS by a very significant extent. The position that since "safe sex" is not 100 percent safe, the safe sex campaign is therefore completely wrong, is a simple-minded argument that, if it did shut down condom use, would result in much death and suffering. It should probably be called a "safer sex" campaign.
And "clean coal" should probably be called "cleaner coal" technology. The environmental left is asserting in the commercials that there is no such technology. That is not correct. While scrubber technology reduces some emissions, burning coal still generates some carbon dioxide. But China has built 30 large scale Coal-to-Liquid plants—production plants, not research trials. They use a "Fischer-Tropsch process" that produces methanol from coal. China has committed to using a large amount of methanol by 2011-2013, mainly added to gasoline to produce a cleaner-burning fuel. As long as oil prices stay above US$35 per barrel, this coal-derived methanol is cost-effective. These plants will produce the methanol equivalent to 20 percent of China’s current oil consumption. With cars and therefore gas consumption doubling, this amounts to about 10 percent of their future needs. China is the only country in the world developing methanol from coal as an alternative fuel. They will use oxygenated gasification to isolate the carbon dioxide produced, either directly sequestered or for pumping carbon dioxide into older wells to increase oil production.
This is "cleaner coal" technology in action. China is moving ahead because they have the chemical engineers to make it happen, and a population that understands more science. They are also moving forward with both solar panels and wind turbines, but they realize these are specialty sources that are only cost-effective in remote areas. Unlike the U.S. commercials that suggest that solar and wind energy are absolutely carbon free, the Chinese know that these are expensive technologies that consume energy and resources to produce, and in operation would raise their citizens’ electric bills by four times—something that their population cannot afford. China is dismantling small but inefficient coal plants. In addition to building larger, more-efficient coal plants, they are building 100 more nuclear plants by 2020. China can move ahead with such a complex formula of old and new technologies because the general public understands the alternatives are not black-and-white choices.
China will not leave its poor citizens to shiver in the cold next winter. In the U.S., those who condemn coal power in any form, would.
One hallmark of being educated is realizing that issues are not black-and-white. The world is complicated, and mostly painted in shades of gray.
With a little better science education, perhaps our next generation will have a better grasp of "safer sex" and "cleaner coal."