If you missed yesterday's guest post by Catherine D'Angelo on the framing of the debate over coal as an energy source, it's a must read analysis.  Today, Katherine Barno offers her outlook on the resource and technological challenges related to coal. Both D'Angelo and Barno are undergraduate students in this semester's "Science, the Environment and the Media" course at American University. What do readers think, can we shift from coal as an energy source or are we stuck on this dirty fuel for the foreseeable future?  What's needed to make the shift?-- MCN.

In 1909, the United States Geological Survey estimated that there was approximately 2 trillion tons of accessible coal lying within America’s soil. Since then we have realized that the actual amount of mineable coal is far less than that dazzling figure. Today, most organizations recognize that there is around 243 billion tons of coal still buried beneath the U.S., but the questions have become: How much of that is actually recoverable? Is it as abundant as the coal industry makes it out to be? Is it as affordable as Clean Coal suggests?

In truth, it is not economically viable to recover the vast majority of that coal. We have already mined the most easily accessible coal, and the cost of mining increases exponentially as we dig deeper into the earth. Considering the geographical placement of coal deposits and the varying classifications coal, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the low price of this fuel. If this is the case—and it is—then why are we still committed to searching and digging?

The largest problem we face is our own infrastructure and our fear of change. Americans are not willing to face the risks (and obvious rewards) of developing a coal-free economy, and the coal industry is playing directly into our fears of unemployment and debt. Small towns across America worry that their jobs will disappear along with the mines if we replace coal-powered plants with solar power. They worry that the price of energy will skyrocket if wind turbines begin replacing coal stacks. And yet somehow there are astonishingly few concerns for the hazards associated with coal production and processing.

In large part, this is due to the coal industry’s clever framing of the issue. The emergence of the Clean Coal campaign has had a powerful impact on America’s relationship with fossil fuels. Dirty coal has been re-branded as America’s Power, an energy source that is affordable, abundant, and clean. This branding technique resonates especially well with the residents of coal states who depend on mines for their livelihood. These swing states act as a platform for the coal industry to convey their duplicitous message of so-called American values, while the industry executives strategize new ways to keep our nation addicted to their product.

Unfortunately for us, the coal industry has a point. Our nation will remain stuck on coal for the next several decades because we are so deeply invested in the coal industry and all that it supplies. With this knowledge we may be forced to adopt the clean coal options that are emerging before us. Developments in China, especially, offer cleaner solutions with practical applications in the U.S. These technologies offer faster, more affordable options that can essentially retrofit existing coal operations to make them less harmful and more efficient.

Though the rhetorical spin that the coal industry has used to advocate clean coal is deplorable, there is some truth in their messaging. We do rely heavily on coal to power our economy, and we could benefit from cleaner burning coal alternatives. However, we must continue our search for renewable energy sources and the technological solutions that will help us implement them. We must carefully consider the options and we must act swiftly in doing so.

As part of the industry strategy, new players have emerged to compete in the clean coal market. Clean Coal Technologies, Inc. is in the process of deploying their PRISTINE™ PROMISE technology that would provide coal with lower levels of pollutants and moisture. According to the to company, this cleaner, more efficient alternative would act as a bridge toward a future of renewable energy solutions; thus CCTI would be able to aide in a slow and controlled transition toward renewables. It’s going to take a significant amount of time and research before we know what energy solutions will best help us move away from coal, so it is certainly worth exploring these options as they present themselves to us.

Though CCTI and other clean coal technologies offer a glimmer of hope in reducing pollutants from fossil fuels, we cannot simply rely on quick fixes like these to change our overtly damaged system. It is vital that we remember it’s still coal that they’re burning. No matter how much you polish it, coal is still responsible for more greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuel. Regardless of the market price of coal today—or the perceived abundance of the supply, or even the promise of less toxic emissions—America needs to realize that what is easy for us today is rarely the best decision for everyone later. We must continue our search for truly green energy sources so that we can provide a safe and sustained environment for the future.

-- Guest post by Katherine Barno a student at American University in Washington, D.C.  This post is part of the course "Science, Environment, and the Media" taught by Professor Matthew Nisbet in the School of Communication at American.  See also other posts on energy policy and members of her project team.