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Editorial: Carbon Capture and Storage: Can the Talk Be Walked?

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This post was originally written for Debate Watch - a series of posts in the Environment section of Change.org by Brooks Lindsay, founder and editor of Debatepedia.org. See article on Change.org here

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is, in its most common form, a technological means of cutting carbon dioxide emissions from smokestacks (coal-fired power plants in particular) by capturing the CO2 and storing it underground. CCS research and development is generally supported and funded by President Obama and the Department of Energy. But, is this good policy? Should CCS be funded, incentivized, and even mandated? Or, is it just a waste of resources and a "greenwashing" technique used by the coal industry to deflect criticism and continue business as usual?

Pros:

On the theoretical plains of our imaginations, CCS applied to a modern conventional power plant could slash CO2 emissions—some say by 80-90 percent. That would be awesome! It would allow us to continue to exploit our abundant domestic coal resources, cut foreign oil dependencies, and fight climate change. And, advocates say, the reality is that we and other countries will depend on fossil fuels for many decades to come. There's no choice. We can make this dependence cleaner with CCS, or not.

Even though CCS doesn't widely exist today, experts believe it won't be too long. George Monbiot—author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning—writes, "I have come to believe that this technology... can, with sufficient political commitment, be widely deployed before 2030." Maybe that's not as quickly as we would like, but it would still make a valuable contribution to the broader climate fight.

Fittingly, the captured C02 can be stored in the massive underground reservoirs that used to hold the oil we've sucked-up over the past century. And, it can even be used for "enhanced oil recovery" to push-up even more of the black stuff (but, hmmm, maybe this is a bad thing). And while CO2 leakage is a risk, most experts say leakage rates will be low and the risks can be tolerably managed.

Also, the future holds even more dreamy possibilities for CCS technologies. Why stop at smokestacks when maybe we can also draw CO2 directly from the atmosphere? CCS could, therefore, kill two birds with one stone—cutting emissions and sucking-up existing atmospheric C02. Not bad at all.

Cons:

The case against CCS is pretty well summed up by The Reality Coalition's clever ad in which a "clean coal" rep proudly says, "Take a good look, this is America's clean coal technology," to a background of nothing but desert.

The coalition's point is not so much that "clean coal" and CCS technology doesn't exist. It does, in labs and small pilot projects. It's that CCS may never be widely deployed because the whole process—from installing a complicated smokestack-capture system to transporting and pumping the CO2 underground—is so energy-intensive and expensive.

For example, one recent estimate in the February 2009 edition of Science indicates that cost-effective deployment of CCS requires a theoretical doubling of typical U.S. industrial electricity prices and would increase typical retail residential electricity prices by about 50 percent. Beyond the price tag, CCS would simply reduce energy production—by as much as 28 percent at the typical power plant, according to Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute.

Probably the only way that CCS could make financial sense for coal producers is if Congress put a price on carbon—but that chance died this year and looks unlikely to pass soon, if ever. And, of course, environmental advocates point out that CCS will prolong our nation's use of coal, which aside from greenhouse gas emissions, pollutes the air, water and land in other countless ways.

The improbability of widespread CCS is why opponents see the clean coal commercials launched by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) as greenwashing at its worst. Their ads that give the appearance of progress really perpetuate cheap coal-electricity, making it harder for renewable sources of electricity to compete. Just as bad, the DOE funding that could have been invested in renewable sources is instead given to CCS projects like the failed FutureGen project.

My verdict

That the U.S. will burn coal for some time to come is the sad reality. So, making coal-burning more climate-friendly does make sense and buys time for the "great energy transition" to truly clean energy sources.

But, coal-electricity companies cannot be relied upon to adopt this technology on their own—the economics are just not there. In order to ensure widespread deployment, two things need to happen:

First, CCS needs to be mandated on some level. Congress, for example, could require that utilities obtain 15 percent of their electricity from CCS-enabled fossil fuel sources by 2020 and ramp up that percentage over time (this is also what's advocated for renewable sources). All new coal-driven plants could be required to eventually include CCS technology.

Second, some carbon trading system should be established that enables coal plants to profit or recoup part of their losses from installing CCS. This will give coal companies a reason to support climate legislation, rather than fight it tooth-and-nail.

Sure, the above plans would make coal-driven electricity cost more (a fact that could be mitigated in climate legislation with consumer rebates). Importantly, however, it allows other renewable forms of electricity to compete on an even playing ground.

What I like most about this is it takes the whole "clean coal" PR campaign launched by the industry and uses it against them. If the coal industry wants to talk the talk on CCS, fine by me. Let's call their bluff, run to the head of the parade, and mandate them to walk the walk. Please sign this petition here or below.

See also

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