In Depth: The Debate Over the EPA’s New Carbon Capture Climate Scheme

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Last week, mainstream environmentalists cheered as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a step toward implementing the Obama administration’s climate change initiative and proposed to cap the amount of carbon dioxide pollution that newly built power plants can spew into the air. Whether the new rules will have a long-term impact on the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, however, depends heavily on the success of a relatively new “clean coal” technology that the electric power industry says is not yet viable and scientists say could cause earthquakes.

The technology, known as Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CSS), has also sparked a debate between environmentalists who are ready to back any serious effort to address climate change and those who are skeptical of high-tech solutions that would continue to encourage the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

The new rules, which will take about a year to complete, still face plenty of opposition from the coal industry and its political allies. The EPA’s analysis shows that the rules will result in “negligible CO2 emissions changes, energy impacts, quantified benefits, costs, and economic impacts by 2022.” That’s because the rules cover only newly built power plants, and the EPA does not expect that many coal-burning plants will be built during the next decade years because of economic conditions.

Rules for existing power plants, which are responsible for a whopping 40 percent of all domestic carbon emissions, are not due until next year and probably will be less stringent.

Carbon Rules For the Future, Not the Present

If the new carbon caps are not going to put any kind of immediate dent in carbon emissions, then what would these rules actually do? For the EPA, the rules set a landmark precedent by forging the first federal regulations of carbon dioxide emissions for power plants under the Clean Air Act. But for the Obama administration, the new rules are all about promoting private investment in carbon capture technology, or CCS, which would allow power plants to keep burning fossil fuels such as coal without emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Since 2008, Congress has allocated about $6 billion toward developing CCS, including $3.4 billion of economic stimulus funding, according to the Congressional Research Service. Since then, the Department of Energy (DOE) has partnered with various industries and researchers across the country and doled out billions of dollars for carbon-capture projects. The Obama administration has hedged its bets on CCS and now wants the coal and utilities industries to start investing as well.

Here’s how CCS would work in power plants: Carbon dioxide is removed before leaving the smokestacks of a power plant then is pumped through injection wells into deep underground formations, where it is supposed to stay forever. The carbon dioxide also can be captured and piped to old oil wells, where it is injected to help recover additional reserves of another dirty fossil fuel.

Under the new rules, carbon dioxide emissions from new natural gas plants would be capped at 1,000 tons per megawatt hour, a standard that many modern gas facilities already meet. Coal, however, does not burn as clean as natural gas, and new coal plants would have to meet a slightly looser 1,100-ton standard, which would be impossible without installing CCS technology.

The EPA says its new rules sends a “clear signal” to the industry that CCS is the future of clean coal technology and the best way to cut emissions from coal-burning power plants. The technology still has many critics, however, with the biggest being hardcore environmentalists and the coal industry itself.

Why Big Coal and Some Environmentalists Oppose CCS

Last year, researchers at Stanford released a study showing that the underground sequestration of carbon dioxide solutions required for large CCS operations could cause minor to moderate earthquakes, similar to those caused by fracking wastewater injection. To reduce carbon emissions effectively enough to impact climate change, large-scale underground storage of carbon would be necessary, and the pressure could break reservoir seals.

“But for the US and the world to be considering CCS, one of the potential solutions to the greenhouse gas problem, it’s a very high-risk endeavor,” said Stanford geophysics professor Mark Zoback at the time. “We need options that are practical, don’t cost literally trillions of dollars and aren’t vulnerable to moderate-size earthquakes.”

The coal industry, already being antagonized by environmental and climate groups while facing tough market competition from natural gas, is less concerned about earthquakes than its own bottom line. The industry claims that the EPA’s new carbon requirements effectively will halt the construction of new coal plants for years because CCS is still prohibitively expensive and has yet to be proven effective. The coal industry’s Republican allies in Congress already have introduced legislation to block the rules.

Utility companies are also leery of the EPA’s new power. In response to the EPA’s announcement, Edison Electric Institute President Tom Kuhn said the carbon capture is “neither adequately demonstrated or economically feasible” for coal-burning plants.

“As proposed, this rule would hinder efforts to develop cost-effective CCS – a critical technology for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions going forward – because it effectively prevents the building of new clean coal plants,” Kuhn said.

Thanks in part to DOE subsidies, there are 23 CCS projects at various industrial sources in 12 states that capture carbon for enhanced oil recovery, and the EPA claims that the projects are proof that the oil industry’s demand for carbon dioxide will spur investment in CCS and make it cheaper for power plants in the future. The EPA also points to a CCS power plant under development in Kemper, Mississippi, but that project already has endured a $1 billion cost overrun, a revolt by ratepayers and heavy opposition from environmental groups.

In a congressional hearing last week, top Obama officials said the rules actually help solidify coal’s place in future of American energy. If CCS is installed in new plants, they argue, America can keep producing and burning coal without releasing as much greenhouse gases into the air.

And that is exactly what many environmentalists fear.

“This is such a crazy conversation, and the only reason we’re having it is because some politicians are using it to pander to an industry that they think has more power than it actually has,” said Kyle Ash, the senior legislative representative for the international environmental group Greenpeace.

Ash told Truthout that CCS is an “expensive distraction” that would exacerbate fossil fuel extraction such as strip mining and mountaintop removal mining, which can have devastating environmental consequences. CCS also carries an “energy penalty” because plants will have to use more megawatts per hour to operate CCS facilities.

That means more coal burning, more coal mining, more water usage, more hazardous smokestack pollution and more coal ash waste that piles up as a toxic sludge in reservoirs near plants across the country.

Like the coal industry, Ash and other environmentalists still are not convinced that CCS is commercially viable. Without government subsidies and the added incentive of enhanced oil recovery, the industry would not even be interested in investing in CCS.

Ash said that private investors are interested in alternatives that already have been proven to work – renewables such wind and solar.

“That’s not the case with CCS,” Ash said. “You will not see any CCS investment in this country without huge amounts of federal support.”

But that’s exactly what the EPA’s new rules are about, according to John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit think tank that supports CCS.

“I understand and wish that fossil fuels would go away. My concern is that that’s a great bumper sticker and not a great strategy for addressing climate change,” Thompson said.

Power plants are going to continue burning natural gas and coal for years, Thompson said, and he does not see a way to avert a climate crisis without CCS. Domestic natural gas prices are low, so new power plants built in the next decade probably will run on natural gas. And the new EPA rules are written to help ensure that CCS will be installed on them.

Thompson said installing CCS in gas plants would help spur innovation to the technology more available to other industries, including coal plants and other facilities such as refineries and cement manufacturers. Higher emissions standards and CCS innovation in the US and Canada also would make CCS more attractive to China, which has one of the world’s largest and youngest coal-burning power fleets.

“[Our power plants] are ready to retire,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to perfect this technology and get it bolted on those young plants in China.”

Ash, however, wonders if CCS is offering too little, too late.

“If it’s supposed to be a solution to stop catastrophic climate change, then it has to be up to commercial scale in a few years,” Ash said.

When asked about other environmental groups that support the EPA proposal, Ash said the Obama administration has set the bar low when it comes to climate policy. And some green groups are ready to get behind any climate initiative the White House supports, he said.

“The president in 2008, before he was first elected, was touting that he was going to be a global leader on climate change. And now if he even mentions it, [they] are happy,” Ash said. “If they propose a rule for these coal plants that will never exist, for these imaginary plants, they are very happy.”

Unfortunately, Ash said, the CCS distraction makes it harder to develop support among lawmakers for a climate policy that will have a clear impact, such as switching from dirty fossil fuels to proven technology such as renewable energy.