Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels: For every ton you burn, three tons of carbon dioxide are created. As everyone knows, CO2 is the main greenhouse gas responsible for heating up the planet. Globally, coal is responsible for about 40 percent of all CO2 emissions. In America we burn more than a billion tons of coal a year, mostly to generate electricity. A big coal-fired power plant typically emits as much CO2 in a single year as a million SUVs. China burns nearly twice as much coal as we do (although less than half as much per capita) and is erecting a new coal plant every ten days. In addition, rising oil prices are boosting demand for plants that can transform coal into liquid fuels like diesel. If the world’s appetite for coal continues unabated, the consequences are easy to predict: We’re cooked.
Fortunately, there’s a technological solution on the horizon. It’s called carbon capture and storage. On paper, it sounds simple. As coal is burned, remove the CO2 with a scrubber or other device, pressurize it into a supercritical liquid that’s roughly the consistency of oil, then pump it underground. Depleted oil and gas wells make good storage sites, as do deep saline aquifers 2,000 feet or so underground. You can even pipe the CO2 offshore and inject it under the ocean floor. In theory, the CO2 will stay buried in these spots for thousands of years, thereby allowing us to continue burning coal without trashing the earth’s climate. Indeed, the promise of this technology is at the heart of every discussion about “clean coal” these days, as well as the Bush Administration’s FutureGen initiative, the $1.7 billion coal plant the Energy Department is building in partnership with a dozen or so electric power and coal companies. FutureGen, which will convert coal into electricity and hydrogen, the much-hyped fuel of the future, is scheduled to go online in 2012 (although there are doubters–within the power industry, it’s dubbed by some as “NeverGen”). Politically the point of FutureGen is to make clear that this dirty black rock–the very symbol of nineteenth-century industrialism–can be spiffed up for the twenty-first century.
It’s a hopeful story, and one that any 2008 presidential candidate who wants to carry Big Coal swing states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wyoming and Ohio is sure to embrace. And why not? It would certainly make America’s energy problems easier to solve if “clean coal” was more than a PR slogan. As high-profile, politically ambitious coal boosters like Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer never tire of pointing out, America is “the Saudi Arabia of coal.” Oil wells in the Middle East may be running dry, but America is blessed with a 250-year supply of black rocks (at current rates of consumption–and never mind the environmental havoc caused by getting that coal out of the ground). If the CO2 problem can be solved, the argument goes, energy independence won’t be far behind.
Unfortunately, this story is more complex than the coal boosters suggest. Squirting CO2 into old oil wells is no big deal–the oil and gas industry does it all the time to help push out stubborn reserves. But capturing billions of tons of CO2 from power plants and pumping it underground–and doing it safely, on a massive global scale, both in the West and the developing world–is another thing altogether. And the politics of this undertaking is even more daunting than the technology. Big Coal is an industry that has thrived for 100 years by fighting off change, isolating itself from market forces and generally depending on political muscle to get its way. The notion that this industry will embrace this challenge is akin to believing your 70-year-old gin-splattered uncle when he tells you he’s taken his last drink. Getting him to sober up can be done, but it requires radical intervention.