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The Bush Administration Takes Two Big Steps Backward on Carbon Capture and Sequestration

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The Bush administration has taken two significant steps backward this past week in U.S. efforts to demonstrate the viability of carbon capture and storage technology at coal-fired power plants. Carbon capture and sequestration technology is a critical tool for reducing our carbon footprint and tackling global warming. But if the federal government and private sector put CCS development on the backburner, it will not reach the starting line in time to make a difference.

The first blow to CCS came when the Bush administration announced that it was scrapping FutureGen, a unique public-private partnership to build a state-of-the-art commercial-scale power plant using Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle technology. FutureGen would have captured 90 percent of its CO2 emissions and injected them in an underground storage formation, making it the world’s first functioning power plant to demonstrate the feasibility of CCS technology. A diverse coalition of governments, utilities, and mining companies from around the world had been assembled to support and oversee FutureGen. An Illinois site had been selected for the project and the plant was slated to begin operations in 2012.

Yet the Bush administration—which had repeatedly touted FutureGen as an example of U.S. technological leadership on climate change—last week decided to cut the project on the basis of “cost overruns” and pledged that it would redirect the funds earmarked for FutureGen to more cost-effective investments in CCS demonstration projects. This clean coal cancellation occurred just one day after President Bush said, “Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions” in his State of the Union address.

The details of the federal government’s new program are distressingly vague. The basic concept is that the Department of Energy will cover the added costs of CCS at multiple other Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle facilities that are either in construction or being planned. But the number of new IGCC plants in the pipeline is small and many proposed plants have been cancelled. Few if any of the proposed projects have been designed to incorporate CCS.

It is unclear whether the promise of federal funding assistance will motivate project developers to regroup and redesign proposed plants. Given the potential delays and uncertainties, the Department of Energy’s willingness to cover the added costs of CCS may not be enough motivation for private plant developers to take on the complexities of the new technology. Moreover, the proposed level of funding—under $250 million—is modest and could probably only support 2-3 projects.

Even if the Department of Energy can find project developers that are interested in its new program, it may not get off the ground before the Bush administration leaves office. This will take us back to square one in 2009, with no viable CCS demonstration projects underway. Whatever its shortcomings, FutureGen was at least on track to provide a working commercial-scale example of CCS within 3-4 years. Now that milestone will not be achieved.

The second big setback is the Bush administration failure to request in its fiscal year 2009 budget the resources to fully implement the CCS provisions of the just-enacted Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The bill calls for seven initial geologic storage projects that each sequester over one million tons of carbon dioxide per year and authorizes a yearly appropriation of $240 million to fund these projects. But the Bush administration requested only $150 million to implement sequestration testing, and its budget request suggested that it intended to continue with numerous small-scale projects rather than the small number of large—over one million tons per year—projects directed by Congress.

A drama is currently playing out in Kansas that illustrates the consequences of sluggish national progress on CCS. Legislation, HB 2711, was introduced to undo Governor Sibelius’ decision to block the construction of new coal plants that do not control their CO2 emissions. Under the new legislation, these plants could be built with only a modest commitment to offset a portion of their CO2 emissions and no requirement to implement CCS now or in the future. Proponents of the legislation argued that CCS is simply not a feasible option—an argument likely to be repeated in other states where opposition is being mounted to new coal plants.

The United States must have a working model of the technology in order to quell this skepticism about CCS, which could open the door to numerous new coal plants that add millions of tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.

The Center for American Progress argues that any cap-and-trade legislation passed by Congress should include an emission performance standard that would require new coal plants to install CCS. This mandate would be coupled with funding from the proceeds of cap-and-trade allowance auctions to subsidize the incremental costs of CCS plants as compared to conventional coal facilities.

Widespread CCS deployment could be invaluable in meeting our emission reduction goals and would encourage export of CCS technology around the world, particularly to developing nations like China. However, we must start now with an aggressive program of demonstration projects, backed by adequate funding. The Bush administration’s recent actions are standing in the way of that vital task and making it yet another critical global warming mitigation effort that will fall to Bush’s successor.

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