Cleaner Coal Could Be Future of Energy, Says Renowned Journalist

by Erica Peterson on July 12, 2011

Journalist James Fallows is in Louisville today to speak at the Kentucky Chamber’s annual meeting. Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a former editor of U.S. News and World Report, and delivered a speech based on a recent article on the future of coal.


Last December, The Atlantic ran Fallow’s piece “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” based on research he observed while on assignment in China. In the piece, Fallows argues that coal is such a significant source of the world’s energy, that it won’t be going away anytime soon.

Instead, he says the world should focus on developing cleaner ways to use coal.

“I know that the arguments here can become very polarized whether you’re either for coal or you’re against coal and there’s a war on coal and whatever,” he said in an interview. “I really wish that on that issue we could move beyond that rhetoric. Coal will be an important part of America’s energy mix and the world’s, so we should use it better.”

He tries not to use the term “clean coal,” which is controversial. But he says coal can and should be made cleaner.

“If opponents of ‘clean coal,’ say, ‘Oh, no coal can never be clean’ and that becomes a stopper to doing research to make it clean-er, then that pure environmentalist position is an enemy of the better environmentalist position,” Fallows said.

Fallows’ article delves into alternative mining technology being developed in China to turn coal into gas underground.

“So if it were possible to send a pipe down into a coal seam and introduce various steam and other chemicals and do a lot of the catalytic operation down there, producing a kind of synthetic gas which leaves a lot of the surplus carbon underground and also, you don’t have any miners, you don’t have any landfill or mountaintop removal,” he said.

Fallows says the technology works, but the real challenge will be making it cost-efficient for power companies and consumers.

Some other points Fallows made in the interview:

  • The world will continue burning coal, so the challenge is to be doing it in a less-destructive way.
  • We need more renewable power, more coal, more of everything.
  • With coal, there’s a big variation between doing things the least clean way and the most clean way.
  • China is growing so fast, and exponentially increasing their electric power capacity, so it’s a great testing ground for this new technology.
  • One of the most exciting new technologies is underground coal gasification.
  • China should be taken seriously, but don’t be afraid of it. Almost any area of technological advancement, especially in Asia, will be done in China.
  • The technology already works and exists, but the real sticking point is that it’s not economically feasible for the coal industry and consumers yet.
  • Appalachia’s economy is well-positioned in the long run, because no matter what, coal will be important.
  • New coal technology would still be hiring people to work in the industry. There could also be opportunities for industrial growth in Appalachia, in creating the parts and infrastructure for this new technology.
  • Eventually, coal could be the cleanest of non-renewable energy sources.
  • Listen to the whole interview here:

    Audio MP3
Photo by Deb Fallows

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