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Environmental activists protesting the 26th annual Pittsburgh International Coal Conference might be surprised to learn that, on at least one point, the conference's director agrees with them. 

"There is no clean coal -- let's be honest about it," says Badie Morsi, a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering. Pitt hosts the Sept. 20-23 event, which will be held inside Downtown's Westin Convention Center.

Morsi's concession seems to contradict some of the conference's own language, which touts the possibilities of "clean coal." But where the researchers and skeptics really differ is on how much coal can be "cleaned up" -- and how long we must continue relying on it for half the world's electricity.

 Inside the conference, some 400 engineers and other experts from 26 countries will hear talks with titles like "Making Clean Coal a Reality," by Carnegie Mellon professor M. Granger Morgan, and "The Urgency of Sustainable Coal," by Robert Beck, head of the National Coal Council, a trade group. They'll also tour the South Park research and development facility of Pittsburgh-based CONSOL Energy, which is among the country's largest coal producers.

Phrases like "sustainable coal" sound oxymoronic to environmentalists. They point out that mining and burning coal damages land, air and water. And since coal is a non-renewable energy source, they argue, it's inherently unsustainable.

Morsi agrees: "We know that coal is non-sustainable." But in conference lingo, he says, "sustainable" simply means "used wisely." As to cleanliness, Morsi notes that coal can be refined enough for eating (as in the artificial sweetener Aspartame). And he contends that technological improvements can eventually make even burning coal a nearly zero-emission process.

That's especially important, he says, if you're concerned about carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, a major component of greenhouse gasses. Conference participants are "doing everything possible because we are environmentally conscious people," Morsi says.

Still, activists from groups like the local Center for Coalfield Justice and the international Web-based group Avaaz plan to converge on the coal convention. Many will link their activities to the Sept. 24-25 G-20 summit of world leaders, who will also meet Downtown and whose agenda also includes climate change. 

Demonstrators will emphasize that no matter how much you refine it, coal equals pollution. 

Pitt's conference won't deal with mining, for instance, but activists note that mining's destructiveness is unavoidably part of using coal. So on Mon., Sept. 21, at Oakland's Melwood Screening Room, the Sierra Club will screen Coal Country, a new documentary about the devastation caused by mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia. And Coalfield Justice plans free bus tours in Greene and Washington counties to highlight damage done by mining, like ruined streams and undermined buildings. Street protests are also planned. 

Many environmentalists also question technology designed to make coal less polluting. Take "carbon capture and sequestration." The process -- which the National Coal Council calls "The Future of Sustainable Coal Use"  -- involves capturing carbon dioxide from smokestacks, condensing it into a liquid and burying it underground. That way, it won't contribute to greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

But activists say the technology is costly, and will require that power plants use even more energy. What's more, it won't be commercially available for years. Fixes like carbon sequestration "are really false solutions when you take the whole coal cycle into account," says Cassie McRae, of Coalfield Justice.

Morsi, meanwhile, agrees with those who argue we should be embracing cleaner energy sources, like wind and solar, more quickly. But because that transition "will require some time," Morsi adds, research into cleaner coal must continue. 

 "There are economic benefits for Pennsylvania making the shift to renewable resources," counters Randy Francisco, a Pittsburgh-based Sierra Club staffer. "Why can't we be in the forefront of this?"

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