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EPA Drops Water Protection to Encourage Clean Coal

RP Siegel | Monday August 8th, 2011 | 3 Comments

In another stunning reversal, our American government appears to have taken another step away from its sworn duty to protect the American people in its continuing effort to better serve the corporate interests that are paying for their political campaigns.

Last week, the US EPA announced that exhaust streams from coal-fired power plants injected underground in an effort to capture and store the carbon contained in them, will be exempt from hazardous waste regulation under the Safe Water Drinking Act.

What’s the big deal here? Showering in Perrier could be fun.

All kidding aside, I’ll tell you what the problem is with this. This idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS), otherwise known as geologic sequestration, is not only extraordinarily expensive to build and will require a substantial portion (as in 25-40%) of the power plant’s output to maintain, but it also hasn’t been tested adequately on any kind of large scale. Furthermore, most of the proposed plants are not intended to capture all of the CO2, either. In order to keep costs down, many of the plants that have been proposed are only designed to capture a portion of the CO2, enough to make coal comparable to natural gas in its net CO2 emission level.  This doesn’t take into account all the other issues associated with the mining and transportation of coal. Plus, we don’t really know if the gas can be held underground under high pressure or for how long.

So, just as the FDA has done with genetically modified food, backing away from requiring adequate testing which would be far too expensive for its producers to thoroughly enough to ensure public safety, the EPA has decided to take the same approach—let the American people be the guinea pigs.

People are generally not that concerned about this right now, thinking that carbon dioxide isn’t really dangerous. After all it’s in our bodies, it’s what we breathe out with every breath.

But then, most people are not aware of the fact that exposure to carbon dioxide in high concentrations, the kind of concentrations that we are talking about here, can be fatal (see hypercapnia).

Most people are also not aware of what happened in Lake Nyos, Cameroon.  On a quiet morning in August 1986, an enormous bubble of CO2 gas erupted from the volcanic lake, killing everything in a fifteen mile radius. All 1700 people living in settlements along the lake’s shore simply never woke up that day.

A similar but smaller release in Lake Monoun two years earlier killed seventeen people.

These were both naturally occurring events that occurred without the added stress of millions of tons of CO2 being injected into the rock at high pressure. There may very well be cases in which the rock structures will hold for a long time, but how long? Even if there is no catastrophic release, the gas can merely seep out. That would negate any benefit the enormously expensive plants sought to achieve, while striking yet another blow to our attempts to keep our climate from spiraling out of control even as the bad news continues to stream in.

The EPA claims that this action is intended to “advance the use of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies, while protecting Americans’ health and the environment.” The protection part will apparently come from a patchwork of other existing regulations. Perhaps they will, but I find this trend disturbing and don’t believe that the available evidence justifies the government’s actions in encouraging CCS for all the reasons mentioned above. The EPA will be accepting public comments on this rule for the next 60 days.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way. In another announcement two days before the EPA press release, General Electric and the University of Wyoming announced that they would suspend a $100 million joint coal-gasification research center near Cheyenne, Wyoming, citing “uncertain federal energy policy and lower natural gas prices.”

I don’t believe that when they talk about “uncertain federal energy policy,” that they are referring to regulation under the Safe Drinking Water act as the showstopper. More likely, it is the fate of billions in requested government handouts that would more likely tip the balance.

A month earlier, AEP announced plans to shelve a commercial scale $668 million CCS project. Meanwhile, Southern Company is reportedly moving forward in incorporating CCS at a 582 MW gasified coal plant in Mississippi that will capture 65% of the emissions.

So if the technology is so expensive and still unproven, and the market won’t support it, then why does the government continue to push it? Well, I think we all know the reason why.

[Image credit: Marc Walthieu:Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Larry Furman

    Clean coal produces clean heavy metals: clean arsenic, clean lead, clean mercury, clean uranium, clean zinc. Burning it will produce clean carbon dioxide, which will trigger clean climate change, manifest in clean hurricanes.

    Clean kills.

  • Larry Furman

    By “extraordinarily expensive” you mean along the lines of $18 per watt. The “Purgen” plant, planned for Linden, NJ will cost $5Billion and require $100 million per year in government subsidies over it’s 40 year life. That’s $18 Billion. It’s a 500 mw plant. $18 per watt. Solar is currently about $5.50 per watt. Wind is about $2.50 to $3.50 per watt.

    http://popularlogistics.com/2009/04/coal-plant-with-carbon-sequestratio/

  • http://www.samsva.org sam broach

    There is no such thing as “Clean Coal”. The only way coal will be clean is leave it where it is; in the earth. Clean coal is like an “oderless turd”