The Dirt on Clean Coal
The Dingell-Boucher bill was widely criticized by environmentalists for containing too many loopholes for industry, rendering the pollution targets essentially meaningless. In the new Congress, enviros scored a major victory when California's Henry Waxman replaced Dingell as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Ed Markey of Massachusetts supplanted Boucher as chair of the subcommittee on energy and environment. Waxman and Markey are drafting global warming legislation they hope will clear the committee by Memorial Day. Still, the politics of the issue are dicey. "There won't be enough votes to pass the bill if it forces economic disruption," Boucher told me. "That means not forcing electric utilities to abandon the use of coal."
The prospects for passing a cap-and-trade bill are significantly tougher in the Senate. Ten coal-state Democrats announced last year that they would oppose Lieberman-Warner unless it was substantially modified, a faction that now comprises as many as twenty-two Democrats, Lucas says. The New York Times dubbed it a "brown state-green state clash." Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a leader of that coalition, says, "I'm almost certain there'll be climate change legislation [this year], and I'm almost certain I'll vote for it. But the pain needs to be shared equally." As of now, Brown says, he's concerned that "the cost of cap-and-trade is borne overwhelmingly by coal states."
The coal industry hopes to exploit such economic anxiety by pushing for a watered-down version of an already watered-down bill. (The latest ACCCE ad highlights the affordability of coal and its ability to sustain jobs that will help "get our economy back on its feet.") "The analogy I like to use is that it's like being on a boat in the middle of the ocean," Lucas says. "If you're going 100 knots due north and you're on a big boat and you try and immediately go 100 knots due south, you're going to wreck that boat." He adds, "It's very easy but not too practical to sit there and say, 'Coal will go away,' when we all know that coal is not going to go away. It's going to grow here in America, and even if it were to go away here in America, it's going to grow exponentially in other parts of the world."
To capitalize on the prevalence of coal in the United States while heeding the dangers of global warming, the industry is pushing what is known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, a complicated process by which CO2 emissions are stored deep underground rather than pumped into the air. Theoretically, CCS would reduce emissions by 90 percent but also decrease efficiency and increase cost compared with traditional coal production. [For much more on CCS, see Jeff Goodell's "The Dirty Rock," May 7, 2007.] The feasibility of instituting CCS on a large scale, at a price worth doing, is the subject of intense debate inside the coal industry and the environmental movement. Greenpeace calls the technology a "false hope," while the Natural Resources Defense Council cautions that CCS must be quickly developed in order to export it to developing countries like China, which has been rapidly building new coal plants with few, if any, pollution controls.
It's not at all clear that CCS will catch on anytime soon in America. In 2003 the Bush administration, with much fanfare, announced the building of the country's first zero-emissions power plant, in downstate Illinois. FutureGen was supposed to be the centerpiece of the administration's strategy for clean coal and a model public-private partnership. Unfortunately, costs skyrocketed, the government footed most of the bill and after five years of planning, the Energy Department killed the project in January 2008. "In retrospect, FutureGen appears to have been nothing more than a public relations ploy for Bush Administration officials to make it appear to the public and the world that the United States was doing something to address global warming," an exhaustive House Science Committee report recently stated. The abandonment of the project, DOE staffers concluded, set back the development of CCS by at least a decade, deferring widespread deployment until 2040.
The failure of FutureGen reinforced the skepticism of even some in the industry toward the technology. "To do this on a big scale, for every coal-fired power plant, is going to be very, very difficult," says Ted Venners of Evergreen Energy. Venners has been hearing about the promise of a pollution-free future for coal since he joined the National Coal Council in 1984. "I'm 61," he says, "and I will not see zero-emission coal plants in my lifetime." A friend of his in the coal business recently likened CCS to "a lot of foreplay and no satisfaction."
In the meantime, environmental groups are urging Obama to declare a moratorium on all new coal plants until CCS is ready to go, whenever that may be. "We should not delude ourselves about the likelihood that that's going to occur in the near term or even the midterm," Gore told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January. Yet despite doubts about its future, CCS remains a favored technology on Capitol Hill, where many members represent coal-rich states and districts. "There's a consensus that we need to spend the money in order to prove or disprove this," says a senior staffer on the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming. "I realize that notion can sound disturbing to some people."
The stimulus bill includes $3.4 billion for CCS research, some of which may go to revive FutureGen. (The legislation also includes $60 billion for renewable energy--a sea change in terms of funding--and the final version stripped $50 billion in loan guarantees for the nuclear and coal industries from the bill.) An energy bill introduced last year by Representative Markey--chair of the select committee--included $5 billion a year for CCS research, with the provision that it expire in 2020, giving the industry more than a decade to prove that it can make the technology work.
But is it worth throwing so much money at an experiment that may very well fail? There are other, cleaner options: groups as disparate as Google and Greenpeace have drawn up detailed blueprints to wean America almost totally off fossil fuels in the coming decades. If Congress and the Obama administration are serious about treating global warming as a pressing economic and ecological threat, coal will struggle to remain relevant. If it hopes to do so, the industry must follow its ads with tangible actions. Nothing less than its survival is at stake.