We have gotten conflicting information during this holiday season on clean coal—that mythic technology that would let us burn all the coal we want without any pollution or carbon emissions. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity created the Clean Coal Carolers, lumps of coal that sing of “Frosty the Coalman” who is “getting cleaner every day,” is “affordable and adorable” and “helps our economy roll.” On the also dramatized but more realistic flip side, you might have seen the television commercial from a group of environmental organizations that takes you on a tour of a state-of-the-art clean coal facility—an empty field.
But if clean coal did exist, would it be a good idea? I would argue “No,” and my support comes from an unlikely place—Doctor Who.
In one episode, “The Sontaran Strategem,” from Season 4, the Doctor returns to earth to investigate a device called ATMOS that has been fitted to nearly every car on the planet. ATMOS was a dreamed-of technology that removed the carbon from the cars’ emissions (and came with a free sat-nav system), but the Doctor noted one small problem: “ATMOS means more people driving, more cars, more petrol. End result: the oil's going to run out faster than ever. The ATMOS system could make things worse."
Clean coal technology has a similar problem—even if you’re not emitting any carbon or other pollution, and even if you can mine it without destroying mountains and rivers, coal (or any other fossil fuel) cannot be a long-term energy solution because the resource is finite. There is only so much coal, natural gas and oil in the earth, and once it is gone, you can bid farewell to our fossil fueled lifestyle.
(At least we won’t have to deal with alien stratagems to use clean coal technology to conceal their attempt to convert the earth into a breeding planet for their clone race, as with ATMOS in the Doctor Who episode. Or so I hope.)