For years – decades? – we’ve heard about the promise of clean coal, which will allow the United States to produce its own energy and limit carbon pollution, through the promise and wonder of technology. We heard that responsible energy companies were installing carbon capture and sequestration systems right now, to make coal mining a clean and green job. we heard that we didn’t have to compromise our lifestyle or change our energy consumption habits, because we were the Saudi Arabia of coal and the big brains found out a way to make that as safe for the environment as solar and wind.

We were sold a bill of goods.

A major American utility is shelving the nation’s most prominent effort to capture carbon dioxide from an existing coal-burning power plant, dealing a severe blow to efforts to rein in emissions responsible for global warming.

American Electric Power has decided to table plans to build a full-scale carbon-capture plant at Mountaineer, a 31-year-old coal-fired plant in West Virginia, where the company has successfully captured and buried carbon dioxide in a small pilot program for two years.

The technology had been heralded as the quickest solution to help the coal industry weather tougher federal limits on greenhouse gas emissions. But Congressional inaction on climate change diminished the incentives that had spurred A.E.P. to take the leap.

The boldface is mine, and it’s the money quote. Coal companies were only committed to the clean coal idea when forced into it by Congressional realities. Once the cap and trade bill failed, as well as any opportunity for a renewable energy standard, coal companies pronounced themselves free to pollute.

This shows the emptiness of rhetoric about the free market. The market will decide that clean coal technology is a smarter choice for the industry, we were told. But that’s not true at all. Big Coal didn’t respond to the market; they responded to government, in particular the lack thereof.

The Department of Energy, incidentally, was willing to foot the bill for half of this clean coal project. AEP still didn’t see the point; pollution is good business for them. The lack of a climate bill contributed directly to AEP’s decision. Polluters will do nothing unless forced.

The other part of this is that carbon capture technology will probably go to China now, and if they succeed they’ll own the market for a desirable good. I’m not very optimistic about the promise of clean coal, but to the extent that it can exist, our industry just blocked the opportunity for the United States to reap the economic benefits from it.

David Dayen

David Dayen