Future or ‘prank’: A look at WU’s Consortium for Clean Coal Use

Workers put the finishing touches on Urbauer Hall’s lab-sized pressurized oxy-fuel space in 2015. (Photo by Megan Magray/Student Life)

The Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization (CCCU) at the University of Washington describes itself as a research center at the forefront of climate solutions. However, the consortium’s support for the continued use of fossil fuels and its focus on carbon capture and sequestration have come under intense scrutiny as scientists and activists sound the alarm over the emergency. to fight against climate change.

Consortium leaders suggest limiting emissions from coal-fired power generation is a key tool in tackling climate change, while critics argue carbon capture and other technologies divert attention of the need for a faster transition away from fossil fuels.

Established in 2008, CCCU focuses its research on carbon capture and sequestration, advocating for the use of fossil fuels alongside solar and wind power. The consortium receives funding from coal companies Ameren, Peabody and Arch Coal in addition to the federal government, but CCCU director and professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering Richard Axelbaum says the university retains decision-making authority over matters. of research.

Recently, the CCCU has developed pressurized oxycombustion technology which Axelbaum says is “one of the world’s top contenders” for carbon capture technology and effectively addresses the unreliability of renewable sources. The research culminated in a $6 million project with the US Department of Energy, Axelbaum said.

However, anthropology professor Bret Gustafson called the CCCU “a bit of a joke”, saying the “corrupt coal industries” want to continue burning fossil fuels to maintain a militaristic economy and satisfy corporate interests.

“It’s just their way of using the University to improve coal’s image,” Gustafson said. “It’s a problem when the University starts getting involved in corporate propaganda.”

Vice-Chancellor for Marketing and Communications Julie Flory declined to comment on criticism of the consortium and Gustafson’s comments about the university.

Axelbaum acknowledged the interest of fossil fuel companies in funding the consortium’s research, but said their programs did not affect the consortium’s decision-making. He added that the consortium’s end goal is to develop technologies that can attract more federal government funding instead.

“Decision-making is driven by the University, but the funding comes from the companies, and for obvious reasons they would like to see technologies develop that have a path forward for coal,” Axelbaum said. “What we do with these funds [from fossil fuel companies] uses them to obtain government funding. So the real goal is not to use consortium funds, but to seed opportunities so that you can develop approaches for things that will lead to federal funding.

Beyond the emission of carbon dioxide, Gustafson said coal’s status as a toxic pollutant at every stage of its extraction, transportation and conversion to energy necessitates the end of its use. He described the phrase “clean coal” as a branding strategy by the coal industry to improve its public image, and compared the phrase to the tobacco industry’s “clean tobacco” propaganda.

“From the moment the workers pull the coal out of the ground, it’s dirty and toxic,” Gustafson said. “Using the phrase ‘clean coal’ distorts public understanding and distorts student understanding of what research really is.”

Axelbaum pushed back against the consortium’s criticisms, arguing that fossil fuels are necessary to continue raising living standards for a growing population.

“Fossil fuels brought us life,” Axelbaum said. “It made us live longer and brought our standard of living to where we live like kings and queens.”

Environmental groups have long been concerned about messaging surrounding carbon capture technology, especially as President Donald Trump often focused on the idea of ​​”clean coal” during his administration. Critics cite that generating electricity from natural gas, solar, wind or nuclear power plants is still much cleaner than coal-fired power plants which emit less carbon dioxide.

Axelbaum criticized the idea of ​​a transition to 100% renewable energy, arguing that the continued use of fossil fuels is necessary to stabilize the energy supply given the seasonal and daily variations in wind and solar energy and that closing coal plants would eliminate the stability provided by fossil fuels. .

Wind and solar energy sources are both highly dependent on weather conditions, leading some experts to consider them unreliable. The August 2020 power outages in California were partly trained by the state’s reliance on wind and solar power sources, highlighting the challenges of an unstable energy supply.

“In an effort to make the case that we don’t want fossil fuels, this one thing…that could help wind and solar succeed is being reviled and suppressed,” Axelbaum said.

Although wind and solar are more sensitive to variations than fossil fuels, some natural gases power plants have also experienced weather-related shutdowns in recent years.

Elai Rettig, a lecturer at the Israel Institute for Israel and Environmental Studies, said the benefits of coal make it a hard resource to overlook. He described CCCU’s work as a pragmatic way to use fossil fuels in a cleaner and more efficient way.

“That’s where carbon capture comes in because we have to accept a truth, and it’s a hard truth to establish: Coal is fantastic,” Rettig said. “Iit is very safe. It’s very concentrated, and it’s very, very abundant.

Still, Rettig said that because the effects of carbon dioxide emissions outweigh the benefits of fossil fuels, coal consumption must be reduced. He said fossil fuels should continue to act as a “support system” for renewables until storage capacity batteries become sufficient.

“Even in the ideal net-zero emissions scenario, we’re still using fossil fuels,” Rettig said, “but we’re doing it much more efficiently.”

Suzanne Loui, lecturer in environmental studies, further emphasized the importance of “keeping everything on the table” in order to find solutions that meet a variety of human needs.

“I don’t think we should stop looking at any of our energy technologies, I think we should improve in all of them,” Loui said. “Then we can gradually begin to improve our use of renewable energy and other non-carbon-emitting sources. But until we can do that, I think we have to keep exploring ways to improve on what we already know how to do with even fossil fuels.

However, Gustafson remained committed to achieving total renewable energy. He quoted the Solution Project at Stanford University as a roadmap to 100% renewable energy, arguing that there should be more focus on implementing large-scale battery storage rather than developing carbon capture technologies , which, he pointed out, has possible fatal effects.

Gustafson opposed plans where companies profit from collecting carbon dioxide by selling it to the oil and gas industries, which would in turn be used to push more oil and gas from wells.

“The cheapest way to achieve energy security and reliability is to use clean, renewable and local energy,” he said. “Something they are doing to try to delay this? I consider this to be criminal. The planet has no time.


Learn more about the history of CCCU and the University of Washington’s relationship with coal:

Some Green Action members call for WU Clean Coal Consortium to be renamed

End of the sit-in against Peabody coal after 16 days of efforts

New Urbauer Clean Coal Facility Set to Complete Construction

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