Making ‘Clean Coal’ More than an Oxymoron.
Peter Sandman is a “risk communication” consultant and speaker, who has helped clients work through various public controversies that threatened corporate or government reputation – from oil spills to labor-management battles, and from vaccine scares to the siting of hazardous waste facilities. Dr. Sandman received a Ph.D. in Communication from Stanford University in 1971.
Most promising new technologies don't keep their promises. That's why an even-money bet on a new technology is a dumb bet. Venture capitalists lose most of their bets, but they make money because their successes pay off at a lot better than even-money odds.
So is a given clean coal technology likelier than not to fail? Absolutely. Does that mean investing in clean coal is foolish? Absolutely not.
And yet it might be foolish after all. People who know more than I know might be able to make a convincing case that clean coal is a blind alley. But I doubt it - not because I'm especially hopeful about clean coal, but because what I've read about technological breakthroughs strongly suggests that it's vanishingly difficult to predict the winners.
I am a risk communication expert, not an energy policy or energy technology expert. This article is not about the prospects of various clean coal technologies, by which I mean chiefly carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies - ways of mitigating climate change by reducing how much carbon dioxide is emitted when coal is burned. Rather, I'm going to focus not on clean coal itself, but on coal industry CCS messaging.
The bulk of this article is about coal industry hype. At the end comes what I hope is the payoff: a list of eight ways I think the industry should change its clean coal messaging if it wants to win over the people who matter most.