Charleston, West Virginia (AFP) Nov 1, 2009
Coal super-powers China, India and the United States are set to dominate world climate talks next month, but even in the heartland of US coal there are doubts their re-branded fuel can be part of the solution.
In the rugged tree-cloaked hills of rural West Virginia, coal is as much a way of life as bluegrass music, pickup trucks or the hundreds of wood-clad baptist churches that spot the countryside.
Mountain tops have been removed to get it, endless trains hurtle across the state carrying it and atop roadside heaps every conceivable piece of industrial equipment is employed to lift, drop, clean or shift lumps of the black sooty rock.
Generations living in and around the Ohio River Valley -- which forms the state's south- western flank -- have mined coal, and earned a living doing so.
Coal is, almost literally, the bedrock of the local economy.
For negotiators packed in Copenhagen's urbane conference rooms this December, Appalachia and its coal production will be a world away, but it could hardly be more relevant.
Responsible for 41 percent of global carbon dioxide energy emissions, coal is cheap, plentiful and increasingly popular.
It is also horrendously dirty -- by far the most polluting fossil fuel according to the US government's Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA's figures show coal produces 50 percent more carbon dioxide than oil and twice as much as natural gas in electricity production.
And the future looks smoggier.
Global carbon emissions from coal are expected to triple between 2000 and 2050, according to a landmark study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published in 2007.
China, thanks to breakneck economic growth, is thought to build the equivalent of two medium sized coal plants per week, a direct challenge to any deal to tackle climate change.
But US usage is also growing, and with it political obstacles to a deal.
West Virginia's Congressional representatives are loathe to support emissions taxes, cap and trade or other carbon-reducing measures, which the industry warns will be crippling.
They will likely have to be won over if the US Congress is to pass climate legislation that would support a deal at Copenhagen.
With US coal supplying half of the country's electricity needs, producers also have a substantial say.
But despite a massive campaign to re-brand the fuel as "clean coal," many in the industry vehemently oppose new regulation to tackle climate changing "greenhouse gases."
Still, in Copenhagen negotiators can count on support from one small portion of West Virginia's coal industry, which sees the drive to green the smoke-stacks as a multi-billion dollar opportunity.
On the banks of the Ohio River this week French engineering firm Alstom and the American Electric Power unveiled a facility that they say could help save the industry and the planet.
A small adjunct to the Mountaineer coal-fired power plant, it is a mesh of pipes and valves that captures carbon dioxide from the plant and injects it in liquid form to aquifers kilometers beneath the surface.
It siphons off just a fraction of the plant's output, but Alstom's hopes it will be major stepping stone to a full-scale commercial facility.
But the head of Alstom power, Philippe Joubert, said for the technology to catch on governments must provide an incentive for companies to reduce emissions.
"I need legislation to give a framework, if there is no obligation why would they do it?" he told AFP. "There is no real choice between using coal or not, the choice is being clean or not."
But not everyone is convinced.
Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said local attitudes to the prospect of more coal-related activity are "very volatile and highly divided."
That is evident at Racine, on the Ohio side of the river, where local resident Elisa Young sat near a playground overshadowed by the Mountaineer plant's 500-foot high cooling tower.
"All that carbon capture is doing is keeping coal on life support," she said, angrily accusing the industry of ruining the health of local residents.
"We should be leaders in the energy industry and looking at ways of generating our electricity in way that doesn't sacrifice entire regions."
Scientists also express doubts that the technology, which is still years away from being commercialized and is still prohibitively expensive, can live up to expectations.
They voice concerns about the detailed study that is needed to ensure aquifers will not leak, particularly in China's complex geology, and to see the impact large-scale plans might have over time.
According to the MIT study, a project injecting one million tonnes of carbon a year for a minimum of five years is needed to test the technology properly. Alstom's project at Mountaineer captures just a tenth of that amount.
Copenhagen negotiators and West Virginia's residents may soon have to decide if that gap represents a gamble that is worth taking, or if re-branded coal is still part of the problem.
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