Must-see TV: New film unearths the dirty truth about clean coal


We’ve all heard plenty about “clean coal” in the last few years, and especially in the last few weeks as Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and a host of other politicians of all persuasions claim it as a major part of the solution to our current energy puzzle. What we haven’t heard, however, is much in the way of facts about the “clean coal” myth. For that, we’ll have to leave the speechifying politicians behind and turn to the new PBS documentary Dark Energy: The Clean Coal Controversy by University of Montana filmmaker Anna Rau. Her film cuts no corners in the search for truth about the real challenges and costs of turning coal into liquid fuels.

For those new to Montana, it may be instructive to look first at the long history of “clean coal” projects in our state. Although it has now faded from favor like morning dew burning off in the hot sun of economic and environmental realities, we once had a massive engineering boondoggle in Butte dubbed “MHD,” which is short for the formal title of Open Cycle Magnetohydrodynamic Electrical Power Generating Plant. While the plant sucked down millions upon millions of federal pork dollars, it never produced enough commercial energy to light even one dim bulb in Butte.

A 1983 OMNI magazine article sent to me by one of the Independent’s readers detailed the wonders of MHD under the title “Firepower Plant,” claiming “tomorrow’s electric generator roars like a tethered rocket.” In retrospect, it’s hilarious to read the over-the-top cheerleading for this early “clean coal” disaster. Author Ernest Volkman wrote: “The machine roars as if a subway train were bearing down on this little-known Department of Energy facility near Butte, Montana. But nothing moves. MHD could—if it ever makes it through the technological and political badlands—render nuclear power and its radioactive wastes inconsequential. It could turn ordinary coal-burning power plants, which spew pollution, into brick-and-steel brontosauruses. In a world greedy for juice, MHD could be the electric pot of gold.”

The article goes on, in a stunning resemblance to the promotional shtick now pouring from the lips of our politicians, to quote one of the plant’s engineers. “There is no doubt in my mind that we can make it work and make it work big,” he says in the article. “Really, the scientific problem is licked. Now what we have is a whole series of engineering problems waiting to be solved. And I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think we can lick them.”

Fast forward some 35 years to 2008, and here we are again, being suckered once more by snake oil salesmen telling us how, with just the right science and determination and, of course, billions more in federal subsidies, we can offset our reliance on foreign oil by simply turning coal into liquid fuels. Chief among the cheerleaders is Schweitzer, but he is by no means alone.

Dark Energy takes on the issue with straightforward interviews with Schweitzer, Rep. Henry Waxman, representatives of the Air Force, scientists from the Big Sky Sequestration study, leading state environmentalists, and a host of others.

One of the most interesting interviews is with two engineers, a husband and wife, who actually helped build the Sasol coal-to-liquids plants more than 20 years ago in South Africa and now reside in Great Falls. Throughout the documentary, as claim after claim drops from the mouth of Schweitzer, these real coal scientists dispute virtually every point. From construction costs, water consumption, massive and varied environmental impacts and the long-term liabilities for same, they reach their conclusion, summed up in one sentence: “Coal can never be clean.”

Dark Energy reaches back into the past as well as looks to the future, pulling this quote from a New York Times article in 1944, about the time the United States decided to begin subsidizing clean coal efforts with public tax dollars: “The next 10 years will see the rise of a massive new industry that will free us from dependence upon foreign oil.” Considering that quote is 64 years old, how uncanny is it that we are still hearing the same baloney from politicians who weren’t even born then?

Or how about the interview with Chuck Kerr, president of Great Northern Properties, which owns much of the undeveloped coal deposits in Montana? Kerr, speaking before a 2007 legislative committee simply admitted that his company was not much interested in coal-to-liquids.

Of particular interest is how the documentary tracks the clean coal rap coming from the governor’s office—and shows, over time, the foibles of the proclamations and the failures of the announced “big projects” to materialize as promised. Front and center is the Roundup coal-to-liquids project announced by Schweitzer with much fanfare about the “deep pockets” of the companies he claimed were going to build a coal-to-liquids plant there. That project collapsed, despite the interference of the governor’s office to force the illegal re-issuance of an air quality permit from the Department of Environmental Quality. And sure enough, Rau tracks it down from the sworn deposition of the DEQ staffers to a face-to-face with Schweitzer, who claims on camera and in direct contradiction to the DEQ deposition, that his office didn’t interfere in the permitting process.

On the science end of the issue, Rau takes us on a quick but thorough journey through the processes and problems involved in stuffing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the earth for permanent storage. Even the scientists who are paid to try to solve the problems admit that they are “daunting” and that the volumes of gas that would have to be sequestered are of “immense magnitude.”

But hey, don’t take my word for it—you can watch it by simply going to the Montana PBS website ( and streaming it onto your computer screen. It’s probably the best documentary to address the issue of coal-to-liquids ever made, and it’s all about Montana.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


Comments (16)

Showing 1-16 of 16

Add a comment

Add a comment