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U.S. Energy Secretary Orders Burying of Coal-Produced CO2 – What Are the Implications?

| Thursday October 15th, 2009 | 5 Comments

carbon-recaptureU.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced Monday that a technology for burying coal-produced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be ready for deployment by 2017, Reuters reports. This is good news for the environment (given the fact that coal accounts for 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions) and, hopefully, for the world’s climate change rate (given the fact that the U.S. is one of the world’s two biggest GHG emitters). Yet the news is somewhat perplexing: while Obama has stated a desire for taking proactive measures against climate change, his administration has yet to act definitively on the issue (i.e. by passing comprehensive climate legislation). What does Chu’s proclamation say about the administration’s environmental priorities?

One could argue that Chu’s proclamation is an attempt by the administration to appear proactive on solving environmental problems. (One could argue the same for Obama’s recent declaration that October is National Energy Awareness Month.) After all, as the Copenhagen Climate Conference quickly approaches – and legislators drag their feet on passing a climate bill – the world is watching America….

Moreover, consider the “clean coal” component of Chu’s proposition. Are proponents of Chu’s plan to bury coal-produced GHG’s mere puppets (or overt supporters) of the coal industry? Or, does the plan reflect the reality that coal, a primary energy source worldwide, will not decrease in importance overnight? Recently, a 3P colleague commented on this line of thought. Chu’s plan is similar, in some respects, to a plan by the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) pilot plant at Schwarze Pumpe in Spremberg, Germany. The CCS operates alongside a giant coal plant, capturing more than 95 percent of the plant’s GHG’s. Not bad – although the question of where to put the recaptured CO2 is a whole other issue. (CCS engineers are reportedly investigating a number of possibilities, including utilizing captured carbon dioxide in industrial applications. However, the lack of policy governing the long-term sequestering of GHGs remains problematic.)

Yes, the lack of policy…. Without a set climate change infrastructure, are we merely grabbing at straws by implementing plans like Chu’s? (Check out my previous post discussing, in part, the role of establishing a national clean energy infrastructure in promoting sustainable development.)

Meanwhile, consider the economic implications of attempting to bury coal-produced GHG’s by 2017. It will likely prod the production of CCS-like technology, thereby stimulating the job market (in the short term, anyway). In the long term, though, could it have negative implications for the growth of renewable energy technology (i.e. diverting focus from sustainable industry)? What other effects could it have? (For additional perspectives on related issues, check out the Blog Action Day website.)

What are your thoughts on the matter?


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  • Kathryn Blume

    Not to be grammatically picky, but I don’t think the phrase “a whole nother issue” belongs in serious journalism. “Nother” isn’t a real word!

    Other than that, good reporting.

  • wk

    Learn from Germany: 50% solar, Diesel engines around 75 mpg and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

  • William J. Broderick

    Agree that one needs to start somewhere, and technology is often prodded by government led initiatives. Ideally, the market will develop its own solutions prior to 2017.

    Last October was National Energy Awareness Month, too!

  • http://climatesecurity.blogspot.com/ Andrew

    Another possibility is that Chu is laying the groundwork for EPA regulation of carbon over the long term. If CCS is available by 2017, that would make it the ‘best available’ pollution control technology. Under the clean air act, then, polluters would be required to put CCS technology on all power plants, regardless of cost.

    On the other hand, if Congress implements a cost on carbon, it becomes in the interest of those polluters to develop CCS, without some unfunded mandate from the Secretary of Energy.

    Also — don’t you love how political leaders convienently make targets for when they will no longer be in office? Why choose 2016, not 2017? Because there is no way an Obama administration is in power in 2017.

  • http://www.one-blue-marble.com Richard Levangie

    A small correction: Chu set a date of 2019, but even that’s highly ambitious.

    The problems with CCS are huge.

    1) It comes with a 20-30 percent energy premium, so we need to burn much more coal to produce the same amount of energy.

    2) It’s only been successful under very limited conditions, so we don’t know if it will work. (Early tests have been mixed, with some good results, and a couple of unexpected disappointments).

    3) It’s expensive, adding more than $1 billion to the price of most coal-fired power plants.

    4) It’s difficult to retrofit on existing plants.

    5) And here’s the killer… Most analysts suggest that Chu’s timetable is unrealistic, and 2030 is a more likely date for wide implementation. And that’s too late… if we don’t cut emissions well before then, then we’ll blow right through 2°C (3.6°F).

    I think putting our faith in CCS is keeping us from making tough decisions we need to make.