Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Clean Coal Research Using Information Literacy Skills

One of my first memories of being in downtown Los Angeles was the sensation of feeling acid rain in my eyes. It stung. I did not know what it was or the cause but I knew that something was dreadfully wrong. That was a long time ago.  The air quality in Los Angeles has improved. It was an involuntary lesson that continues to help me to remember that environmental concerns isn't a buzz word or a hoax perpetuated on the gullible. You see, it really doesn't matter to me if you believe in global warming or not.

I say that because I know that humans and human activities have an effect on the environment. Environmental concerns matter if you breath, use water or sleep on the planet. It is a multi-level problem. It is so much more than changing the type of light bulbs in your home.

Congress will make a decision on an energy bill. There are many vested interests. I want to be a participant; but before I can put my two cents in I need to know and understand a lot of different issues. One in particular is the concept of Clean Coal. Coal is not clean. The process of extraction is certainly not clean or environmentally friendly. Remember that Coal Ash spill in Tennessee a while back?

I need to know more. This is gonna be a two-fer. I want to find accessible information about Clean Coal. I also want to share with you the consumer friendly version of quick research and information evaluation process.

What Do I Want?
I want to know what is "Clean Coal", what is the process of making coal clean and what is the environmental impact both short and long term. I would like to get the information from authoritative sources like scientists or science educators but I need the information presented in plain English. If I can't find science accessible resources than environmental reporting would be acceptable if I can identify the source and verify information.

I need to know what the term means. Since I am not going to write a master's thesis I can go to Wikipedia for an introductory background. I will not accept anything presented as fact because there are vested interest who can, have and will manipulate information. It is a just a starting point. Another definition I found is Ask an Engineer at the MIT School of Engineering.

Cornel University Legal Information Institute does have a definition that is being used by the U.S.Government under Title 42 > Chapter 85 > Subchapter IV-A > § 7651n where you can find out that there isn’t necessarily one simple definition.

Next, I’d use a couple of search engines to find definitions but 'I’d go into the advanced function and confine the search to the .edu domain. I’m looking for unbiased academic information. That said, I do know that certain colleges and universities get funding from coal production companies to aid in supporting research, products and services. Look for disclosure statements, outside associations sources of funding or where the school is located. If it is smack dab next to a mining community there may be issues both pro or con.

For example, from the University of Kentucky there is Understanding Clean Coal Technologies with links to videos and podcasts. Digging deeper into the website they have extensive information about mining coal, gas and oil. If you look at the list of collaborators there seem to represent companies with a vested interest in mining. It doesn’t make the info good or bad, it just means you have to consider the source of the information. Compare the University of Kentucky’s site with the one at Purdue University. What do they have in common, what are the difference and what are the vested interests, both inside and outside, of the university?

Finding Resources

Certainly I would also look at science specific magazines like Popular Science, websites like How Stuff Works, blogs, non-profit organizations, television and government agencies. Remember this is still in the discovery phase. I'm just sucking it in at this point.

You can Twitter your way to being informed. You can using the basic search feature to enter the term or use hash tags to find folks that mention the term. But did you know about the advanced Twitter search? It gives you more options like finding a specific person, date ranges or if there are links in the tweet.

Do you use a URL shortner? Some of those have search features as well. has a search function. For those URLs that were shortened by I can do a search for Clean Coal. I came up with 340 links that way - everything from parody, rants, educators, manufacturers and publications. Similar sites have search features as well.

Here is one more way to find folks that are talking about this topic. Blog Pulse tracks blogs and the topics like Clean Coal that bloggers are talking about. This is everybody into the pool; you will see links to politicians, newspapers, blogs, partisan opinions and if you dig long and hard a scientist or two.


So you spent some time getting the lingo down, understanding concepts and weeding out the pretenders and political bloviates. How do you know if you are getting the straight scoop or not?  It does come down to transparency and credibility.

  • What is the background of the writer?
  • Who owns the website or blog?
  • How is it resource supported, by ads, what kind?
  • Is there an "About Us" page that fully discloses the author and the source of information?
  • Is it academic writing or is it some guy on a coach?
  • Is it a public relations tool or it is an advocacy site?
  • Does it give you the information in the way that you expect?
  • When was it updated?


The last thing I’d want you to think about is the purpose of the site. I’m sure that if I go to a few environmental  or green websites they are not going to be too crazy about the concept of Clean Coal. I want to know why. I’d want them to be specific and give examples. I would not expect the coal manufactures to give me a complete picture either. This however would be their opportunity to present their point of view. I would equally expect them to be specific and give examples.

This is a very important issue. I’m not going to give you answers, heck I’m still putting together my own. I do want you to have skills in finding those answers for yourself. I am not unbiased. I think the coal industry is doing the equivalent of what automakers have done, known to my ancestors as the old shuck and jive. But I might be wrong. Or not.

I need to be able to ask questions of the energy plan. I hope you will do the same.

I know I missed the one resource that folks would want others to know about. Don’t hate, participate and plunk them in the comments.

Other Links About Clean Coal

  • Janice Weis, Associate Director of the Environmental Law program at Lewis and Clark Law School moderated a discussion with a representative from the Sierra Club and the American Coal Council in April 2009 at  You can listen to the podcast or view an on-line presentation.
  • CE Virginia DeBolt also had questions about Clean Coal in her April 2009 post.
  • At the Environmentalist Dr. James Hansen wants the President to know about the destruction of Coal River Mountain
  • At This is Reality you can view the anti-clean coal commercial, obtain facts about coal and environmental effects of coal and check out the blog.

This post originally appeared on BlogHer, where I am a Contributing Editor. 

1 comment:

  1. The search for ways to reduce carbon emissions has led to government grant money for schemes ranging from promising to wacky. Recognizing that there is no currently viable replacement for fossil fuels, with the possible exception of nuclear power, the US and other countries with large coal deposits are desperately looking for ways to continue burning coal without incurring the wrath of nature or the IPCC. Clear evidence of the seriousness of this effort is evident in this week's special edition of Science, dedicated to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. For more on the state of clean coal technology see "Serious Black: The Quest for Clean Coal."