Using Coal Responsibly

Expert panelists discuss how to curtail greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging carbon capture and sequestration technology.

Ken Berlin and Robert Sussman, authors of the Center for American Progress’ newly released report “Global Warming and the Future of Coal: The Path to Carbon Capture and Storage,” were joined yesterday by a panel of energy experts including former CIA Director John Deutch of MIT, David Hawkins Director of NRDC’s Climate Center, and industry representative Kipp Coddington of the Alston and Bird law firm.   

The event was moderated by former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, and organized by CAP Senior Fellow Bracken Hendricks to discuss policy tools to drive implementation of carbon capture and storage technology in a new generation of coal plants, and to ensure a future for coal energy that can co-exist with the need to manage carbon emissions.

“Global Warming and the Future of Coal” explains that increased demand for abundant energy resources will result in the construction of more coal power plants, subsequently increasing the amount of CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming, and overwhelming all efforts to curb global warming pollution unless near term action is taken. Yet the report also shows that successfully implementing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology on all new coal plants can greatly reduce the amount of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere.  

Panelists discussed how this technology can be paired with policies that also work to reduce the amount of carbon emissions. One of the most popular proposals among policymakers is the introduction of a carbon cap-and-trade system that would create a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions combined with a system of tradable carbon credits

Yet Sussman, former Deputy Administrator of the EPA, explained that current legislative cap-and-trade proposals won’t necessarily spur businesses to implement carbon capture and storage technology because “Many legislative proposals call for modest caps in early years (2010-2020) and some have ‘safety values’ limiting carbon price.” He argues that a mandate that requires new plants to capture and sequester emissions at the highest available performance level, phased in over a period of seven years, would better ensure that the next generation of coal plants will be able to capture CO2 emissions, and that the measure is necessary even with a carbon price. Sussman underscored that a declining cap-and-trade program should also be implemented to control emissions at existing coal fired power plants. 

Sussman’s comments led John Deutch to caution that although we need to quickly reduce changes in the atmosphere, domestically implementing CCS technology will be difficult. Deutch, who recently ran a seminal study on coal plant technology for MIT, called for a full-scale demonstration of CCS implementation and warned that the timing is urgent and, to date, the resources are insufficient. He also proposed a carbon tax, which would impose a cost on fossil fuels based on their carbon content, further saying that such a measure could help fund such technology research and deployment. The panelists agreed that resources should also be dedicated to addressing any equity concerns raised by impacts on the price of energy.

The panelists also commented that rapidly growing countries such as India and China make reducing CO2 emissions an even more critical issue. These emerging energy markets also represent an opportunity for technology transfer if American’s are prepared to address the imperative for new coal technology. China is expected to soon surpass the U.S. as the global leader in carbon emissions, which means that the problem of global climate change cannot be averted without a worldwide effort. Berlin made it clear that a necessary first step for the U.S. to encourage foreign countries to become more responsible in their energy policies is to enact those policies domestically. 

Both Berlin and Hawkins underscored the urgency of finding policies that could capture carbon at new coal plants for environmental reasons. Hawkins claimed that by 2030 the emissions from just-planned new coal plants alone could exceed the CO2 emissions of all human coal use to date by 25 percent. Coddington also attested to the technical readiness and business interest in CCS technologies. 

Moderator Carol Browner closed by emphasizing that as the world continues to search for clean, renewable sources of energy, it will be impossible to avoid the use of abundant coal supplies. Even with aggressive measures, it will be difficult to reign in CO2 emissions in the face of a massive boom in traditional coal plant construction. Reducing carbon emissions from coal use by CCS technology is therefore essential and should be a top priority for US climate and energy policy. The panelists agreed that without effective implementation of this technology, significant change in the atmosphere could have drastic long-term consequences for our climate. 

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