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In this April 30, 2009 photo, a carbon dioxide capture system is seen under construction at American Electric Power's Mountaineer Plant in New Haven, W.Va. Power company American Electric Power said Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009, that its third quarter earnings rose 18 percent as rate increases and cost cutting offset weak demand for electricity from industrial customers.(AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Work is underway on a project at American Electric Power's Mountaineer Plant in New Haven, West Virginia, to clean the carbon out of coal, but advocates say stronger policy is needed to get carbon capture and storage technology off the ground.

Photograph by Jeff Gentner, Associated Press

Sonja Elmquist

for National Geographic News

Published August 13, 2010

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

In a multipronged effort to boost “clean coal,” the Obama administration has announced a $1 billion project to demonstrate a new combustion technique, launched studies of where carbon dioxide could be stored underground, and unveiled recommendations meant to chisel away at regulatory barriers.

But many supporters of the drive for carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a way to address the U.S. greenhouse gas pollution from coal-burning power plants say the flurry of moves in the past week fall short of what is needed—a clear legal commitment by the United States to make cuts in fossil fuel emissions.

“You can build a small number of demos, but seriously deploying? It doesn’t have a future without legislation,” says George Peridas, a scientist in the Natural Resources Defense Council climate center. “Unless the finance community has a certainty about what will happen in the policy domain, they won’t go there.”

(Related: “The High Cost of Cheap Coal”)

NRDC parts ways, to some extent, with environmental groups that reject carbon storage outright, arguing that the mining of coal is too damaging or that the huge investments required would be better spent on energy sources that don’t emit carbon in the first place. NRDC has advocated more research on CCS, although the group has been critical of coal industry efforts to block the very climate legislation it sees as essential to spurring the huge investment that is needed.

Opposition to climate legislation indeed proved effective, as repeated efforts to refashion a bill narrowly passed last year by the House failed to garner the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster in the Senate.

Clean Coal Push “Deteriorating”

The implications of the policy gap bother not only environmentalists, but key industry players who sought to play role in building a new generation of less-polluting coal plants. So far this year, about 47 percent of electricity being generated in the United States is coming from coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s down from 50 percent five years ago. Natural gas’s share of generation, meanwhile, has inched up from 18 to 21 percent. And the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 90 percent of new power plants built in the next 20 years will burn natural gas.

“We’re seeing a definitive shift to where there are no new coal plants being built,” says Keith White, director of the gasification technology group at GE Energy, which focuses on commercial-scale carbon capture projects. “That’s being driven by the uncertainty over where CO2 policy is headed. Right now, without government action, that industry is deteriorating. We may lose our leadership edge.”

The Obama administration sought to turn that perception around with its August 5 announcement that it would revive a scaled-back version of the federal government’s banner effort on CCS, the FutureGen project that had been planned for Mattoon, Illinois. Instead of moving forward with that plan (which had earlier been launched and then shelved by President George W. Bush’s administration), the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would use $1 billion in stimulus funding to retrofit an obsolete oil-burning power plant about 140 miles west of Mattoon, in Meredosia, Illinois, with a different technology.

The original FutureGen would have converted the coal to a gas that would be burned for power: the carbon dioxide emitted by the process would be captured and stored. But FutureGen 2.0, as the administration is calling it, aims to be the world’s first commercial-scale oxy-combustion plant. The hope is that burning the coal in the presence of pure oxygen, producing an exhaust gas of nearly pure carbon dioxide, would cut down on the costs and energy needed to clean up smog-causing pollutants and mercury.

(Related: “Clean Coal? New Technology Buries Greenhouse Emissions”)

The new plan included a role for Mattoon—as an underground storage site for the carbon dioxide that would be captured. But the economic development group at Mattoon has balked at storing the carbon from the Meredosia plant—underscoring how the back end of the CCS process may prove to be as controversial as the front end.

Seeking Storage Sites

But the Obama administration also sought to address the storage conundrum this week, announcing a three-year, $21.3 million project to study the feasibility of sequestering the carbon dioxide underground at 15 sites in 12 states. The projects will study five different types of formations where captured carbon dioxide might be stored: porous rock saturated with salt water known as deep saline formations, coal seams that can’t be mined, depleted oil and gas fields, organic shale containing oil and gas, and areas of volcanic rock called basalts.

Who would be responsible for any damages if any of that captured carbon dioxide escaped from underground? That’s just one of the nettlesome legal issues that an interagency federal task force sought to address in a 233-page report released this week. On the liability issue, the task force recommended against open-ended federal indemnification of the industry for any accidents that happen, as some have suggested. Instead, the task force said that the hybrid private insurance approach that limits the liability of the nuclear power industry is a model that could be adapted for insuring the risks of long-term CO2 storage. It said further study by the agencies, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, was needed.

GE Energy released a statement that is was “disappointed” with the task force report, for failing to address what it sees as the most serious impediment to CCS: the lack of market drivers that would either “lower costs or create financial incentives” for power companies to invest in the technology.

To date, although carbon dioxide has been captured for years in industrial and chemical plant settings, efforts are under way around the world to develop and demonstrate the best technology for making it work at a power plant. Several planned projects have been cancelled due to insufficient financing. But work is under way on two demonstration projects in the United States—a Duke Energy plant in Edwardsport, Indiana, that would be considered “carbon capture- ready” and at American Electric Power’s Mountaineer coal plant in New Haven, West Virginia, where the aim is to scrub the carbon dioxide out of the smokestacks using ammonia.

(Related: “The Quest to Capture and Store Carbon”)

Peridas, of NRDC, says that money and political will are the real problems with CCS, not know-how.

“The important thing for people to realize is the reason this hasn’t been done is policy and price, not because of uncertainty in the technology itself,” says Peridas. “This is not like nuclear fusion. With this, we know how to do it. It’s a question of will we align the stars in a way to get corporations to do it?”

Sonja Elmquist is a reporter for Medill News Service in Washington, D.C.

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