Amid its commitments to increase cooperation in developing renewable energy and electric vehicles, the U.S.-China clean energy agreement announced Tuesday by Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao seeks greater collaboration on so-called "clean coal" technologies.
China and the U.S. are by far the world's largest users of coal power, accounting for more than half of global use. As countries with vast coal deposits, they also have been leading the search for cleaner ways to burn the notoriously polluting energy source.
The announcements regarding what the presidents termed "21st Century Coal" consist of various partnerships:
• Some of the partnerships seek cost-effective ways to derive synthetic gas from coal. General Electric, for example, will pursue a joint venture with Shenhua Group to develop technology and business models related to coal gasification. The U.S. Trade and Development Agency will also support a feasibility study of an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plant in China that would use American technology developed in cooperation with China Power Engineering and Consulting Group.
• In another project, St. Louis-based Peabody Energy is teaming up with coalition of Chinese energy companies on GreenGen, a project to develop a "near-zero emissions coal-fired power plant," according to the DOE.
• A partnership between an AES subsidiary and Shenzhen Dongjiang Environmental Recycled Power and Songzao Coal and Electric seeks to use methane recovered from a coal mine to generate electricity.
• Two others involve the U.S. National Energy Technology Lab studying the feasibility of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, at coal-based facilities in China in collaboration with Shenhua Group and Shaanxi Institute of Energy Resources and Chemical Engineering.
The fact remains, though, that coal is one of the world's most polluting fuels. So far, technology has been able to only partially mitigate that.
China is well aware of the environmental and social impacts of dependence on coal — as well as the inevitable exhaustion of deposits — and it is at the forefront of the search to find cleaner ways of burning the resource, the World Resources Institute says.
"These efforts are part of a larger plan, adopted in 2005, to save the equivalent of more than 600 million tons of coal by 2010," according to WRI.
In the United States, coal gasification and CCS are part of an ongoing debate over the efficiency and potential of new coal power technologies.
"There is no such thing as clean coal, but you can at least deal with emissions," says Jake Schmidt, International Climate Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We think that CCS and 'clean coal' are likely to have a future in a climate-concerned world, and to have a future, the emissions need to be taken out of coal production."
"Having said that, we don't think that by doing that coal is necessary clean. There are a number of issues that aren't addressed by simply taking the carbon out."
On the other side, National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich says,
"We have long favored greater federal efforts to encourage the deployment of clean coal technology, specifically CCS technology. We just don't have CCS technology at a large enough scale right now to reduce carbon dioxide emissions."
Coal gasification is an "intermediate to advanced technology that would make it easier to strip the pollutants from emissions," Popovich says. "It yields a purer stream of emissions than conventional coal pulverization technology."
"Our opinion on coal gasification," counters Schmidt, "is yes, but only if it leads to CCS."
Back in Washington, the dominance of the coal industry and the dependence of some states' economies on the resource has become a major sticking point for climate change legislation on Capitol Hill.
Some of the most powerful senators involved in the legislation are from coal-dependent states, including Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va).; Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, (D-Mont.); and Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.); not to mention Republicans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Nearly half of the United States' electricity currently comes from coal. But the industry and the power and jobs it generates are predominantly in a handful of states, and while those states stretch from Delaware to Arizona, the numbers vary widely.
Meanwhile, some states have almost no direct stake in the coal industry at all — mining or power production. While 96 percent of Wyoming's electricity is generated from coal, neighboring Idaho is at zero percent, according to the NMA's figures.
Also in the U.S.-China energy agreement, the two presidents announced joint initiatives laying out a roadmap toward the greater deployment of electric vehicles and cooperation in improving the energy efficiency of buildings, factories and consumer appliances.
Hu and Obama announced the establishment of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, through which U.S. and Chinese researchers will develop improved methods of energy efficiency in buildings, "clean coal", carbon capture and storage, and "clean vehicles".
There is also a Shale Gas Resource Initiative that would apply the United States' experience in producing natural gas from shale formations to developing China's capability to do the same.
Shale gas is "a cleaner fossil fuel than coal," says Schmidt, "but there are a number of other environmental impacts that need to be taken into account," as well as costs and water issues.
"It is too early to determine the effect these initiatives might have," Schmidt concludes. "They do say the right words ... that's positive. But in other places, we've seen those same words not have the effects we'd hope for."
Popovich, warning against the prospect of the U.S. taking action to reduce emissions without commitments from other major carbon emitters, says, "The best way to involve China and India is to have the technology available for them to reduce emissions from coal."