Nightmare On Coal Street: The Video

Earlier this week, President-elect Barack Obama announced his picks for his energy team, with Dr. Steven Chu to head up the Department of Energy.

Dr. Chu is not the happy holiday gift the “clean coal” folks were hoping for.

The blogosphere has been abuzz with something Chu said about coal in an alternative energy talk he gave at UC Berkeley in April 2007. The video of the talk is nearly two hours long, but we snagged the important bit, where he talks about coal.

“Coal is my worst nightmare.”

Transcript excerpts:

Let me go to the supply side of the energy problem. Now, we have lots of fossil fuel. That’s really both good and bad news. We won’t run out of energy, but there’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us.

Coal is my worst nightmare. Carbon emission in the next thirty years is predicted in the current forecast to - we’ll be adding three times the amount of carbon dioxide in the previous history of all humanity if we continue on our present course. [pdf, link]


There is abundant fossil fuel energy in these various forms…. [C]oal, it’s so plentiful there’s no serious exploration for it. Coal is the default option of the US, China, and India. Why is that? (It’s also the default option of Russia.) It’s because 2/3 of the coal supply is in these countries.


China is now embarked on a program to be building one half gigawatt-to-one gigawatt coal plant a week. [In the] United States… there are about 140-150 applications for coal plants that have been applied for in the United States today. (new coal plants) And let’s assume that you don’t apply for a coal plant - to build a new coal plant - unless you intend to build it in the next three years. So, the US is on a path that is also roughly one [plant] a week. It could be a little less, it could be one every 10 days because not all those plants would be built.


So this is what we’re seeing today. This is the default option that we are currently doing. It’s not that we’re going to head for this, we are doing it.

He then presents a slide that summarizes carbon capture and sequestration. It’s on page 24 of the pdf of his slide presentation (click here for the image alone).

He describes the process of carbon capture, and discusses some of his concerns (which have also been expressed in great detail by the IPCC):

But there is a possibility - this is of some concern - that in its initial state as a big bubble of gas, it might find its way to the surface or in its state as CO2 -impregnated salt water it’s more acid and it could also form some cracks.

So the issue here is naturally not [just] the cost of converting the coal to a stream of hydrogen and CO2 and pumping it underground. That would probably increase the power bill by as much as 25%. That’s what a carbon price of $30-$40 a ton would be equivalent to.

But there’s an unknown cost in that if this.. faces legal challenges. Why would there be a legal challenge? Because there would be people saying “I don’t want this done in my backyard” because if the carbon dioxide ever does bubble to the surface it could actually kill people. 10% carbon dioxide is lethal. And so that’s one of the issues.

We are doing research into sequestration both at the lab and worldwide, but at a very small level, the equivalent of a few million tons of carbon per year. We have to go to several billion tons of carbon per year before it becomes a 10% effect. So it’s a research-development issue, so I think we have to do this if we’re going to go forward with coal but it’s not a guarantee that we have a solution with coal.

So, in summary, Dr. Chu’s “coal is my worst nightmare” remark is based upon several things:

  1. Coal is the default power source for the US, India, China, and Russia, as examples.
  2. Building new coal plants at the present rate will have an absolutely catastrophic effect on the environment, due to the associated increase in carbon emissions, and the resulting climate change.
  3. Carbon capture and storage is an interesting proposal from a scientific point of view, but it has multiple possible complications. It cannot be a viable solution until the problems are solved.
  4. At this point, it is therefore a research and development issue, but we would have to go from the pilot study/research phase into full-scale commercial use of the technology awfully darned quickly to do any good.
  5. Since CCS will have to go full scale if we are to continue building new coal plants, and we can’t go full scale very soon, coal is not likely to be the solution to our growing energy needs.

Chu’s approach to coal power is discussed both at the Wall Street Journal Environmental Capital blog as well as in a December 16, 2008 article in the Charleston Gazette. The latter quotes reactions from various coal industry individuals. They are disappointed, to say the least, and will be clamoring for an answer on the FutureGen project, as Joseph Romm mentions here.

At this point looks like the future is not bright for “clean coal”, at least when it comes to an endorsement by the US government.

The dirty energy lobbyists will be wearing out the shoe leather come the next legislative session. It remains to be seen whether or not anyone will listen to them.


I studied that same speech.  I transcribed it today.  My transcript differs from yours, and I find the meaning is different.  Also, I’ve studied another report Chu signed off on as the co-chair, the InterAcademy Council report “Lighting the Way” , and it clearly supports the rapid deployment of carbon capture and storage, hence I disagree with your conclusion based on your different transcript of this speech.  I had more information to look at. I don’t think Chu is who people think he is, at least if they think he’s going to be stopping coal power without a serious look at carbon capture in the US.

I think campaigners are very happy with Chu because at last, here is someone, and he’s not alone among recent appointees to the Obama administration, who will know and accept the science of climate change.  But I think campaigners are going to be unhappy as they realize that scientists have been supporting both nuclear and carbon capture to respond to the grave situation climate change represents, and Chu is one of these.  Chu wants renewables and calls for rapid development of new technologies, but read what he’s signed off on in the past and you’ll see.  The IAC is a creation of “all the world’s science academies” as the website says, and hence that report Chu co-chaired for them is almost as gold plated as reports get.

What I see in Chu’s assessment as outlined in this speech you’ve put up is that coal is his nightmare because coal use is expanding so rapidly and the emissions are not captured at present.  His nightmare is the emissions.  These will dwarf all that humanity has emitted since the Industrial Revolution began in only a few more decades.  Unless the emissions are captured and stored or unless another fuel is chosen, as he says, we’ll be “cooked”.  He accepts that CCS technology exists now, i.e. it can be costed, he cites cost figures on the low side of the many I’ve looked at, and the only problem he brings up in the speech is the legal problem of NIMBY challenges mounted by people who don’t want to live near storage sites. 

When you describe Chu as seeing carbon capture as “an interesting proposal from a scientific point of view” I wonder.  I think you use the words “from a scientific point of view” to bring up an image of a technology that is still a gleam in some scientist’s eye in the lab:  yet all parts of the process of carbon capture and storage are in fullscale commercial use in other industries now, the technology is not some scientific curiosity, it exists at pilot scale and the IPCC, MIT, McKinsey and IAC reports all call for full scale implementation now with the barrier described as lack of a price on carbon and lack of regulatory environment for storage of CO2.  Building the first full scale plants of any new technology will cost more and it will take a few of them before engineers start zeroing in on the best way to build them. But every technology started being implemented at full scale somewhere, and this campaign saying carbon capture doesn’t exist has more to do with people being fed up with the PR of Big Coal and coal’s other problems than it has to do with carbon capture.  People are talking like CCS is something like fusion power, always 50 years in the future.  The reason the technology has not been built at full scale is, according to a JPMorgan Chase representative at the CCS Expert Meeting on Finance in NYC 2008 is that no one in the US is going to build a plant to capture something it is free right now to emit to the atmosphere. Chu states in your transcript that the cost of electricity would go up 25% if CCS was added:  when did an industry, anywhere, at any time, voluntarily add 25% to its costs unless regulations were put in or a price penalty had to be paid if they didn’t?

Why FutureGen was scrapped is a question people might ask Big Coal and George Bush, and it is incredible and somewhat amusing that campaigners cite FutureGen’s cancellation as a reason to believe carbon capture is bogus rather than believing the more likely theory that Big Coal and Bush didn’t want to lift a finger to do anything on climate on Bush’s watch.

Getting back to what Chu actually says.  In the sentence before your quote from Chu’s section on storage starts, he says:  “…and at that point its very very secure, its believed to be, because little microcapillary action will prevent it from being released. So.”  and then he goes on as you’ve quoted him “But there is a possibility, and this is of some concern, that in its initial state as a big bubble of gas” etc.

Your transcript, at the 3:37 mark of the video:  “So the issue here is naturally not [just] the cost of converting the coal…”

My transcript:  ‘So the issue here is actually not the cost of coverting the coal…”  What I hear is an emphasis on the NOT, there is no word just, and the meaning seems clear.  Chu doesn’t see a problem with the technology not existing or its cost.

Adding 25% to the cost of coal fired electricity is a problem, but it isn’t a deal breaker for CCS, note Chu’s statement that CCS could be forced on industry with a carbon tax of only $30 - $40.  You’ve inserted the word [just] which Chu does not use, and you’ve interpreted him to be saying “naturally” when what I hear is “actually”. 

You’ve taken Chu to be talking about multiple problems carbon capture and storage has whereas  I see him talking about one:  the legal problem of NIMBY people stopping storage projects in their neighbourhoods, which leads Chu to say “its not a guarantee we have a solution with coal”.  The NAS recently found 100 years worth of potential CO2 storage under the sea floor off the US north west coast.  No one lives on the sea floor.

Read Chu’s IAC report.  Here are some quotes from the Executive Summary:

page xx:  “great urgency must be given to developing and commercializing technologies that would allow for the continued use of coal - the world’s most abundant fossil fuel resource - in a manner that does not pose intolerable environmental risks….”  which is completely the opposite of Gore’s position which is the technology isn’t here at full scale, therefore we better forget about this cynical and self interested illusion we can’t base the future of humanity on. 

page xxv:;  “Aggressively pursue efforts to commercialize carbon capture and storage.  Moving forward with full scale demonstration projects is crucial, as is continued study and experimentation to reduce costs, improve reliability, and address concerns about leakage, public safety, and other issues.” 

How this could be taken to be describing a technology that doesn’t exist or is still in the lab I can’t see.  Civilization could have moved on this many years ago and didn’t, because the movers and shakers are in denial that climate is a problem.  Now that Obama, Chu and Holdren are here, campaigners have decided that one dollar put in to carbon capture is a dollar taken out of renewables it seems and I also don’t see that.  50 billion dollars is spent on pets in the US every year, why don’t people think all those dollars were taken out of renewables?

Anyway, this will all be cleared up as people get to know Chu, Holdren, and Obama better.  I find its useful to read what people have signed off on in the past.


Earlier in that same speech at the National Clean Energy Summit, in the full version available on Youtube here  Chu discusses how California caused industry to change the way it did things to reduce CO2 emissions.  Chu:

“…Art Rosenfeld convinced California to adopt a refrigerator energy standard - that all refrigerators had to go above a certain standard.  And, the standard would increase over time.  And something that was really unusual, the efficiency started to improve before the standard came into practice.  Why is that?  Because about that time the appliance manufacturers were put on notice:  you can’t hide.  Dont run to the Republicans, don’t run to the Democrats, you just can’t hide from it, so start thinking about it.  Transfer your resources from your lawyers to your engineers [audience breaks out into laughter and applause].  And so they started to get very efficient beforehand and the efficiency improved by a factor of four.  A factor of four even though the size [of the average refrigerator] went up. 

Now during this time there were all sorts of tales by the industry saying the price of refregerators would zoom through the roof if you did this.  There was an initial uptick.  But afterwards, they got better at engineering and the price of refrigerators, inflation adjusted, went down by a factor fo two.  This is something that has played itself over and over agin.  There’s a regulation that says you have to do somethign whether that’s putting in seat belts, catalytic converters, clean air for coal plants, clean water - if you have to treat water and sewage and industrieds can’t dump raw sewage out into streams - the first tack that the lawyers use, among other things, and that companies use, is that its going to drive the electricity bill, drive the cost of cars up, everything up, and it repeatedly has been demonstrated that once the engineers start thinking about it, its actually far less than the original estimates.  So I think we should remember that when we hear this again, because you will hear it again….”

So here we go again.  Industry is coming under pressure to do something about carbon emissions.  But instead of taking advantage of what has been learned over the years about how to force industry to implement pollution control, campaigners are attacking the carbon capture and sequestration technology itself.

Look at your transcript where Chu talks about carbon capture cost:  Chu, darling of climate campaigners now, states it would add 25% to the cost of electricity, that’s it.  I’ve heard BC’s Guy Dauncey stand on a stage calling for a 50 cent a kWhr subsidy for solar voltaic such as what was done in Germany, while on the same stage later he had nothing good to say about carbon capture and called it “expensive”.  The Economist magazine Special Report on Energy stated coal’s wholesale cost per kWhr is 5 cents.  Add 25% and you get 6.25 cents kWhr.  Solar thermal is said by Solel, developer of the Mojave 1 plant, to be approaching 12 cents kWhr.  But it is universally stated by carbon capture opponents that the technology is prohibitively expensive.  You tell me:  how is it possible campaigners can be so positive about Chu if there is this stark contradiction between what campaigners say and what Chu says?  Is Chu lying?

Whoever transcribed that section of Chu’s speech for you couldn’t even hear it correctly, they are so wanting not to hear, so a word was inserted to change the meaning.  People opposed to carbon capture, for instance Jeff Goodell in his Rolling Stone article “Big Coal’s Campaign of Lies” will say the technology is not possible to implement because “for now, the only viable way to eliminate CO2 from coal plants is to shut them down”.  Goodell actually goes to an industry source to get a quote saying the technology has been oversold as “a magical technology that solves the carbon problem for coal plants”.  Obviously a spokesperson for an industry that doesn’t want to implement pollution control technology is a great place to get unbiased information as to whether a technology is a great thing to implement.  Forget what Nobel prize winning Obama appointees who are being celebrated all over the internet, like Stephen Chu, say.

Big Coal didn’t take the tack of the lawyers working for the refrigerator companies Chu talks about in this speech:  on coal, they advertised as if they’ve already cleaned up their operation when they haven’t.  But their intent was the same:  delay or stop any change to their operation that would cost them money, as long as possible.

Instead of speaking out with a campaign telling Big Coal to transfer their resources from their Public Relations department to their engineers and get on with carbon capture and start building the full scale plants to finally prove out the technology once and for all  to keep the emissions Chu calls his worst nightmare out of the atmosphere, campaigners are attacking the technology itself. Chu’s report mentions that CCS technology may be useful on biofuel powered electricity plants, as the net effect would be that CO2 would be removed from the atmosphere

Capturing carbon, says Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands, Dirty Oil and the Future of Our Continent, is “morally bankrupt”.  What about pollution from cars?  Was drastically reducing that with catalytic converters, computer controls and fuel injection “morally bankrupt”?  Gwynne Dyer, author of Climate Wars, states with authority on BC CBC Almanac:  “carbon capture doesn’t work”.  So, let’s clear this up:  Chu is lying?  The IPCC, MIT, McKinsey, the IAC, the NAS, they don’t know what they are talking about?

Here’s a quote from the IAC report written by the Study Panel Chu co-chaired:  the general public needs to be thoroughly informed about the advantages of carbon sequestration and about the relative manageability of associated risks.  The media can assist with this

Its an astonishing spectacle to me.  Al Gore, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, and even DeSmogblog, that bastion of truth and decency which “exists to clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science” are on one side on carbon capture and storage, and on the other side are the scientists.  The IAC is a creation of the world’s science academies.  Climate campaigners are trying, against the best scientific advice, to ensure that the general public is informed that carbon sequestration does not exist, will cost too much, will take too long, and is unsafe

The IAC say they are “mobilizing the world’s best science to advise decision makers on issues of global concern”. Board members of the IAC include: Ralph Cicerone, President, National Academy of Sciences, USA.   Lu Yonxiang, President, Chinese Academy of Science.  Martin Rees, President, Royal Society of London.  M. Vijayan, President, Indian National Academy of Sciences, Ichiro Kanazawa, President, Science Council of Japan, Mohamed H.A. Hassan, President, African Academy of Sciences, Jacob Palis, President, Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, as well as many others, Presidents of national Academies of Sciences, and international scientific and engineering organizations.

any carbon diet strategy would be dependent upon clean coal:

According to British PM the vast majority of new power stations in China and India will be coal-fired; not “may be coal-fired”; will be. So developing carbon capture and storage technology is not optional, it is literally of the essence.” –“Breaking the Climate Deadlock,” web page design

But, Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, has estimated that capturing and burying just 10 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted over a year from coal-fire plants at current rates would require moving volumes of compressed carbon dioxide greater than the total annual flow of oil worldwide – a massive undertaking requiring decades and trillions of dollars. “Beware of the scale,” he stressed.”domain registration

“The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state.” –Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

John from high speed internet service

On September 7, 2009, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) first aired a detailed, 45 minute investigative report on the current status of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology around the world. The segment, titled “The Coal Nightmare”, shows just how little progress has been made in actually building a single demonstration that it is possible to separate CO2 from flue gas, compress that gas, pump it underground, and monitor the results to prove that the gas does not later seep out. ecommerce solutions

The largest project that the show covers that appears “almost” ready to begin operating a full cycle is one in Virginia that actually only takes a tiny 1.3% slice of the flue gas emissions from a large coal facility, but even that project is not yet operating to sequester CO2. website design

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