Coal Pollution Practices Could Change With Increased Carbon Pricing

An administration task force recently reviewed carbon pollution levels from coal plants as well as the efforts being made to advance underground storage of the waste materials that contribute to the large carbon footprint.  They feel that the best way to encourage the development of this new storage technique is to increase the fees imposed for carbon dioxide emissions.

The experimental method, called carbon capture and storage (CCS) would help to reduce the pollution that is currently believed to cause global warming.  The geoengineering technique captures CO2, compresses it, and sequesters it below ground so that it never enters the atmosphere.  CCS can reduce carbon emissions of a coal plant by 80-90%, but there are moderate costs associated with the process.  A fair amount of energy is needed to capture and compress the carbon dioxide, especially if it has to be captured from the air.  This leads to greater fuel consumption at the plant, and overall higher energy costs.

Currently, coal-based power plants rank #1 in the U.S. for harmful gas emissions.  In an effort to reduce pollution across the country, the Obama administration has put a focus on what they are calling “clean coal.”  Clean energy projects have been funded with more than $4 billion from the federal government, and another $7 billion from private investors.

The energy crisis has Democrats in the Senate frustrated.  They had to abandon a climate legislation bill last month due to lack of support from the Republican Party.  Opponents argued that the bill imposed a “national energy tax” that would end jobs and pass along the costs to consumers in the form of higher utility bills.

The task force has been working since February to come up with a plan that will help carbon storage technology become a reality within the next ten years.  President Obama would like to see at least 5 commercial-scale demonstrations of the CCS method by the end of 2016.  The biggest hang-up is perhaps the issue of liability should the sequestering of CO2 go awry.  If CO2 is released in high enough concentrations, it can cause death by asphyxiation.  It is therefore clear that the containment aspect of CCS be well understood and tested before large-scale implementation can move forward.

The report released last week suggests a number of ways to handle such liability.  These include limiting claims, using a trust fund to pay for any damages that occur after a CCS site has closed, or transferring liability completely to the federal government upon site closure.  In order to make CCS development attractive despite the high costs, federal agencies will need to regulate the projects.  The task force employed experts from the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department, and a number of other federal agencies.  With the publishing of their report, the future of CCS now remains in the hands of regulatory agencies and investors.