Climate bill is built on 'clean coal' myths

By Steven Milloy
August 26, 2009, Investor’s Business Daily

The fate of the Waxman-Markey climate bill rests upon two myths about so-called “clean coal.” The first is that coal, as used today in the U.S., is a dirty fuel. The other is that coal can be made “clean” by capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants and storing them underground in geologic repositories.

As to the first myth, if the chief concern about burning coal for electricity is limited to CO2 emissions, then coal is already clean. CO2 is a colorless, odorless, naturally occurring trace gas in the atmosphere that humans exhale and plants need to grow.

There is no direct evidence that humankind’s comparatively minuscule CO2 emissions predictably or discernibly affect the climate. Controversy surrounding the first myth has given rise to the second myth as a potential solution.

Some in the coal and electric-power industries are touting the second myth in hopes of being able to survive climate legislation with hard emission caps that may be enacted this fall.

These groups are looking for time and taxpayer money to develop CO2 capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies that would allow the continued use of coal in power plants. The Waxman-Markey bill that is now being considered in Congress would provide about $60 billion for CCS technologies.

The problem, though, is that even if $60 billion were enough money to implement CCS — and it’s not by a long shot — it would make no difference to the atmosphere and climate, regardless of whether you believe the first myth.

Atmospheric levels of CO2 are currently about 380 parts per million (ppm), as opposed to perhaps about 290 ppm around 1850. Based on this increase, we can reasonably estimate that about 40% of manmade CO2 emissions since 1850 remain in the atmosphere, while the other 60% is transferred to oceans and the terrestrial biosphere.

In 2007, U.S. coal-fired power plants emitted about 2.4 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, meaning that about one billion metric tons of CO2 remained in the atmosphere. Since each part per million of CO2 in the atmosphere weighs about 7.81 billion metric tons, the annual accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere resulting from U.S. power-plant emissions is on the order of 0.12 ppm.

So if CCS were commenced immediately and continued until, say, the year 2100, that would avoid accumulation of atmospheric CO2 by about 11 ppm — not exactly an earth-shaking amount. EPA scenarios forecast future CO2 levels to rise to 500 to 700 ppm.

Using the climate models relied on by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that attempt to project atmospheric warming caused by CO2, the theoretical amount of atmospheric warming avoided by CCS works out to between 0.045 to 0.15 degree Celsius avoided over the next 90 years.

Again, this is hardly significant compared with the 0.7-degree increase we seem to have experienced since 1850.

But then, CCS cannot be implemented immediately and is not affordable on any significant scale in the first place. The most ambitious plans put the first commercial-scale CCS projects 10 years or more into the future.

In a presentation to the Society of Petroleum Engineers last March, energy expert Michael Economides estimated that CO2 cuts on the order of the U.S.-shunned Kyoto Protocol would require the drilling of 161,429 injection wells by 2030 at a cost of $1.61 trillion.

That price tag doesn’t include the cost of capturing the CO2 at the point of generation, purchasing rights of way for pipelines, pipeline installation costs, and liability insurance. Power plants would have to use 30% more energy for CO2 capture, transport and storage.

Economides says the total cost may be as high as $1 trillion annually — without any guarantees that the CO2 would stay sequestered. Importantly, the Kyoto Protocol requirement of a 7% reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels pales in comparison to that required by Waxman-Markey — an 83% reduction from 2005 levels.

For those who still hold dear the fantasy of CCS, it may serve to remember ill-fated Yucca Mountain, the almost 30-year-old project to develop a site for storing spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants one mile under the Nevada desert.

Despite tens of billions of dollars spent on site planning and engineering, Nevada NIMBY-ism and anti-nuclear power activists delayed the project long enough for the Obama administration to defund the project.

If the comparatively small Yucca Mountain project could not be made to happen, it’s doubtful that hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of pipelines carrying pressurized CO2 to much more uncertain underground entombment and possible environmental contamination will happen either.

The CCS myth has only served to derail the debate that needs to occur in Congress about the all-important first myth. Desperate coal and utility companies that rely on coal as fuel have advanced CCS in order to avoid a carbon-cap death penalty and to be perceived as environmentally progressive.

Energy-realistic politicians looking for an easy out on the climate issue are more than happy to dangle taxpayer money in front of the much-needed coal and utility industries to get them to the table for a quick-and-dirty deal.

Some environmentalists — Al Gore, for one — are willing to pay lip service to the CCS concept just to get a bill passed and establish a beachhead for their political power grab.

But few in the climate debate have stopped to seriously consider the realities of CCS. Now is the time for that consideration so that Congress can decide how seriously it believes in the first myth and whether it is worth its universally recognized economic pain.

Milloy publishes and is the author of “Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them” (Regnery 2009).