A position I've held consistently, and don't expect to change anytime soon, is that coal is evil shit, albeit a necessary evil until the day we can be rid of it.
The primary reason I — and practically every thinking person without a financial tie to its mining, transporting, and burning — oppose coal is that its burning spews vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and I don't believe there'll ever be a valid way around that.
Proponents talk about carbon capture — removing it from chimney gases before it they enter the atmosphere — and sequestration — putting it somewhere other than the atmosphere, where it will do no harm. Though not an engineer, which perhaps undercuts whatever I say next, I can't imagine that there are enough holes in the ground to hold all the carbon that coal burning releases.
Additionally, coal is already transported vast distances from mines to plants, which is an energy cost, and unless the holes are right next to the plants — and they're not — we'd be adding another energy-intense journey onto the first one. There's also the question of its safety, since an accidental release could asphyxiate those in the area, as it did in Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 (when the release was natural). And, I wonder how it can be a long-term solution, which tells me that any money spent on developing such technology would be better spent on solutions that are going to last: solar and wind, for examples, which, once they're developed, won't carry perpetual downsides.
Having said all that, it's still interesting to relate that the Total energy company is starting CCS at a plant in Lacq, in southern France, this month.
The 60m euro Lacq project will transport and store 60,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year in the nearby depleted gas field at Rousse – once the biggest onshore natural gas field in Europe, but which is now almost empty. It is the first to link together all parts of the carbon capture chain from burning natural gas to isolating CO2 from flue gases and burying it underground. Reusing an existing pipeline that has been transporting natural gas from Rousse to Lacq for 50 years, Total engineers plan to push the carbon dioxide from the power plant in the other direction, injecting the gas into the Rousse reservoir at a depth of around 4,500m. The Lacq project will run for two years, after which engineers will monitor the Rousse gas field to demonstrate that the carbon dioxide remains safely trapped inside.
So that's how they're going to address the back-end problem, by reversing the gas flow, but of course that's only applicable for natural-gas plants. They won't be able to send the CO2 back down the tracks that brought the black rocks.
To me, any story on this topic would have to include some or all of the caveats that I've layed out above, but Guardian reporter Alok Jha, one of the world's leading climate reporters, has very little of it. When he gets into the obligatory caveat territory, it's about criticism that this testing isn't going on in Great Britain instead.
Apparently, this is because CCS is a foregone conclusion is his view, that the issue isn't "should we?" but "how soon can we?" He writes that there is "agreement from almost all sides that CCS must be made commercial if the world can ever hope to meet its carbon-reduction targets."
Wow, if he's right, and he's certainly in the position to know, that's really bad news.