Burnt Out

The government’s plans for clean coal are another great green scam.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th March 2008

“Coal is so clean and fresh that the prime minister brushes his teeth with it, Downing Street said last night. Mr Brown said advances in coal technology meant it was now one of the cleanest substances on Earth, and an unrivalled remover of stains and scaling.” So says the satirical website the Daily Mash(1). The real claims are scarcely battier.

Ministers are about to decide whether to approve a new coal burning power station at Kingsnorth in Kent. This would be the first such plant built in Britain since the monster at Drax was finished in 1986. As well as coal, it will burn up the government’s targets, policies and promises on climate change.

John Hutton, the secretary of state in charge of energy, has started justifying the decision he says he hasn’t made. “For critics,” he argued last week, “there’s a belief that coal fired power stations undermine the UK’s leadership position on climate change. In fact the opposite is true.”(2) Quite so: if we don’t burn this stuff the Chinese might get their hands on it. Or could he be a true believer? Does he really think there’s such a thing as clean coal?

Clean coal’s definition changes according to whom the industry is lobbying. Sometimes it means more efficient power stations (which still produce almost twice as much carbon dioxide as gas plants). Sometimes it means removing sulphur dioxide from the smoke (which boosts the CO2(3)). Sometimes it means carbon capture and storage: stripping the carbon out of the exhaust gases, piping it away and burying it in geological formations. None of these equate to clean coal, as you will see if you visit an opencast mine. But they create a marvellous amount of confusion in the public mind, which gives the government a chance to excuse the inexcusable.

In principle, carbon capture and storage (CCS) could reduce emissions from power stations by 80-90%. While the whole process has not yet been demonstrated, the individual steps are all deployed commercially today: it looks feasible. The government has launched a competition for companies to build the first demonstration plant, which should be burying CO2 by 2014.

Unfortunately, despite Hutton’s repeated assurances, this has nothing to do with Kingsnorth or the other new coal plants he wants to approve. If Kingsnorth goes ahead, it will be operating by 2012, two years before the CCS experiment has even begun. The government says that the demonstration project will take “at least 15 years” to assess(4). It will take many more years for the technology to be retrofitted to existing power stations, by which time it’s all over. On this schedule, carbon capture and storage, if it is deployed at all, will come too late to prevent runaway climate change.

Kingsnorth will produce around 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 every year(5); if all eight of the proposed coal plants are built, they will account for 46% of the emissions Britain can produce by 2050, assuming the government sticks to Brown’s new proposed target of an 80% cut(6). Aviation, using the government’s own figures, will account for another 184% (7)(these figures are explained on my website). Even if we stopped breathing, eating, driving and heating our homes, the new runways and coal burners the government envisages would more than double our national greenhouse gas quota.

The government seeks to bamboozle us by arguing that the new power stations will be “CCS ready”, meaning that one day, in theory, they could be retrofitted with the necessary equipment. But even this turns out to be untrue. In January, Greenpeace obtained an exchange of emails between EO.N – the company hoping the build the new plant (yes the same EO.N that broadcasts footage of fluttering sycamore keys, suggesting that its dirty old habits have gone with the wind) – and Gary Mohammed, the civil servant drawing up the planning conditions(8). Mohammed begins by sending an email of such snivelling obsequiousness that you can almost smell the fear on it. “Drafting the conditions for Kingsnorth. If possible I would like to cover CCS … I admit this suggested condition could be without justification and premature but no harm in trying to gauge your opinion.” (This “suggested condition” was actually government policy. Who’s running this country?) EO.N replied by claiming that the secretary of state “has no right to withhold approval for conventional plant” (in fact he has every right). All it would allow the government to specify was that the potential for CCS “will be investigated.” Mr Mohammed wrestled with his conscience for all of six minutes before replying. “Thanks. I won’t include. Hope to get the set of draft conditions out today or tomorrow.”

This exchange took place in mid-January, a few days before the European Commission published a proposed directive specifying that all new coal-fired power stations must be CCS ready(9). Mr Mohammed must have known that he was helping EO.N to win approval for the plant before the directive comes into force next year.

You might by now be beginning the derive the impression that carbon capture and storage is not the green panacea that ministers have suggested. But you haven’t heard the half of it. Even if it does become a viable means of disposing of carbon dioxide, new figures suggest that it’s likely to enhance rather than reduce our total emissions.

For the companies which will bid to bury the gas, one technique is more attractive than the others. This is to pump it into declining oil fields. The gas dissolves into the remaining oil, reducing its viscosity and pushing it into the production wells. It’s called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The oil the companies sell offsets some of the costs of carbon storage.

A few weeks ago, the green thinker Jim Bliss roughly calculated the environmental costs of this technique. He used as his case study the scheme BP proposed (but abandoned last year) for pumping CO2 into the Miller Field off the coast of Scotland. It would have buried 1.3m tonnes of CO2 and extracted 40 million barrels of oil(10). Taking into account only the four major fuel products, Bliss worked out that the total carbon emissions would outweigh the savings by between seven and fifteen times(11)*.

So has the government ruled out enhanced oil recovery? Not a bit of it. Its memo about the demonstration project says that Mr Hutton’s department “will want to ensure that the treatment of EOR and non-EOR projects are dealt with on a level playing field basis.”(12) Another document suggests it favours this technique: enhanced oil recovery will lead to “increased energy security, domestic revenue and employment”(13). But, the government notes, this will have to happen before the North Sea’s oil infrastructure is dismantled. “Now is the perfect opportunity to realise the significant opportunities offered by CCS.”(14)

Like biofuels and micro wind turbines, carbon capture and storage turns out to be another great green scam. It will come too late to prevent runaway climate change, the government has no intention of enforcing it and even if it had the technique is likely to boost our carbon emissions. This is what John Hutton calls “meeting our international obligations”(15). Heaven knows what breaking them might look like.


*Jim Bliss has now been in touch to say that he was misled by the wording of BP’s press release. The scheme would in fact have stored 1.3m tonnes of CO2 per annum, which means that it would have resulted in a net CO2 saving (of around 50%). My apologies for this mistake.


1. http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=782&Itemid=59

2. John Hutton, 10th March 2008. The Future of Utilities. Speech to the Adam Smith Institute. http://www.berr.gov.uk/about/ministerial-team/page45211.html

3. The commonest technique for flue gas desulphurisation is the limestone gypsum process. As well as making the power station slightly less efficient, the chemical reaction produces CO2. The two key reactions are:

CaCO3 + SO2 = CaSO3 + CO2


CaSO3 + _O2 + 2H2O = CaSO42H2O

See: Dept of Trade and Industry, March 2003. Flue Gas Desulphurisation (Fgd)
Technologies For Coal-Fired Combustion Plant. http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file20875.pdf

4. BERR, 19th November 2007. Competition for a Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage
Demonstration Project. Project Information Memorandum. http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file42478.pdf

5. Greenpeace, 2007. Letter to Alistair Darling. http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/files/pdfs/climate/kingsnorth_objection.pdf

6. Here’s how Greenpeace makes this calculation:
“In December 2007, Gordon Brown said he aspired to an 80% cut in emissions by 2050.
That would give us a carbon budget of 117.8mt/CO2/per year. The new coal plants
currently proposed – 10.6 GW of capacity – would emit more than 54 million tonnes of
carbon dioxide which represents almost half of that quota. (10.6 GW x 7884 hours of
generation per year, assuming 90% operational = 83.57 TWH/y. 83.57 TWH/y x 0.65 = 54

7. This is 80% of the 1990 level, namely 161.5MtC (please note that this weight refers to elemental C, not CO2). That leaves 32.3MtC.

The Dept for Transport’s conservative figures suggest aviation emissions will rise to 15.7 MtC by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that net radiative forcing from aircraft emissions is 2.7 times that of the CO2 alone, which gives a nominal carbon equivalent of 42.4MtC. The government’s figures systematically underestimate the UK’s contribution, by assuming that British people are responsible for 50% of the seats on flights leaving or arriving in the UK. The true figure is 70%, which means the total equivalent figure is 59.35MtC.

8. You can read these emails here: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/files/pdfs/climate/FOI-1.pdf

9. Commission Of The European Communities, 23rd January 2008. Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the geological storage of carbon dioxide and amending Council Directives 85/337/EEC, 96/61/EC, Directives 2000/60/EC, 2001/80/EC, 2004/35/EC, 2006/12/EC and Regulation (EC) No 1013/2006. http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=COM:2008:0018:FIN:EN:PDF

10. BP, 30th June 2005. BP’s plan to generate electricity from hydrogen and capture carbon dioxide could set a new standard for cleaner energy. Press release. http://www.bp.com/genericarticle.do?categoryId=97&contentId=7006978

11. Jim Bliss, 17th January 2008. Oil companies and Climate Change. http://numero57.net/?p=224
Jim Bliss was asked to do this by the environmental writer Merrick Godhaven.

12. BERR, 19th November 2007, ibid.

13. The North Sea Basin Task Force, June 2007. Storing CO2 under the North Sea Basin – a key solution for combating climate change, p9. http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file40159.pdf

14. ibid, p9.