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Our ‘clean coal’ fantasy isn’t dead — but perhaps it ought to be

Though partisan attackers like to paint the Obama administration as pursuing a “war on coal,” as Mitch McConnell is fond of putting it, that’s disingenuous.

It is entirely possible to capture the carbon dioxide emitted by a power plant and store it someplace other than our planet’s heat-trapping atmosphere. It’s just very expensive.
REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

A “clean coal” electricity sector is one of those enduringly magical fascinations, like cold fusion or perpetual-motion machinery or the philosopher’s stone, that seems destined to outlive every new proof of its essential implausibility.

So perhaps it’s too soon to conclude, as many commentators are doing, that cancellation of federal funding for the FutureGen project in southern Illinois earlier this month represents any kind of final chapter in a very long-running story.

Congressional Republicans could always find a way to overrule the Energy Department’s decision, perhaps without much risk of a fight from the White House.

Though partisan attackers like to paint the Obama administration as pursuing a “war on coal,” as Mitch McConnell is fond of putting it, that’s disingenuous to say the least.

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The Kentucky Republican who leads the Senate majority is of course a coal-state senator, but then so was the Illinois Democrat who occupies the Oval Office, and Barack Obama has referred time and again to the promise of clean coal and the wisdom of federal support for programs that might make it a reality. You could look it up on Politifact.

Nevertheless, you have the standard carping from folks like Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, quoted by The Hill as saying the FutureGen defunding decision “calls into question the commitment of the administration to the development of clean coal technologies.”

Or Laura Sheehan of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, observing in the same piece that “President Obama and his federal agencies are clearly opposed to advancing carbon capture and storage technology, despite repeated assurances.”

What a load of coal ash.

A project Bush killed, now revived

Let’s remember that this iteration of the project — FutureGen 2.0 – represents Obama’s revival of an earlier version that was rolled out with great fanfare in George W. Bush’s presidency as an alternative to moving away from coal-fired electricity, then mothballed at the beginning of 2008 when embarrassingly little progress was made.

This time around, the federal project subsidy of a billion bucks was to be made under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and these stimulus had to be spent by the end of this fiscal year.

But here we are, well into the second quarter, with progress too slight to justify staying that course, and Congressional Republicans refusing to extend the deadline, so the plug was pulled for a second time.

Even if that hadn’t happened, though, there was little indication that the coal-sector companies partnering in FutureGen 2.0 would be able to raise the $650 million in private funds that were needed to make the project viable.

If that seems like a lot of money, consider that federal investments in clean coal since 2009 already total $6 billion, according to a fine Bloomberg piece published Tuesday, with another $2 billion in tax credits available in Obama’s new budget.

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So I guess we have to ask ourselves:

If coal producers and their utility customers aren’t willing to put their money behind this supposed silver-bullet solution for cleaning up our dirtiest way of making electricity, with ever-tightening carbon controls clearly on the horizon – well then, why should taxpayers want to pony up?

Feasible, but costly

In referring earlier to the essential implausibility of a clean coal-burning electricity sector, I stopped short of “impossibility” because, in fact, it is entirely possible to capture the carbon dioxide emitted by a power plant and store it someplace other than our planet’s heat-trapping atmosphere.

It’s just very expensive, especially if the CO2 is just going into permanent underground storage, as in the FutureGen concept.

As the Bloomberg feature points out, some large-scale plants are already doing it.

SaskPower opened the world’s first full-scale clean-coal plant last October, in Canada’s Saskatchewan province. Known as Boundary Dam, the plant cost $1.2 billion, $190 million of which came from the Canadian government [note the reversed proportion of private/public cost-sharing in Canada’s approach].

Its emissions travel down a pipeline rather than up a smokestack. But Boundary Dam enjoys one key advantage over FutureGen: Rather than simply burying its emissions, it sells the CO2 to an oil company, which injects the compressed gas into old wells to coax more oil to the surface — a process known as “enhanced oil recovery.”

That turns the CO2 into a marketable byproduct, creating a steady revenue stream that offsets some of the costs of putting a lid on emissions. A similar project is under way in Texas, where NRG Energy, a utility in Houston, is leading a $1 billion effort to build a clean-coal plant called Petra Nova.

The project got $167 million in federal funds. As part of the deal, NRG bought a stake in a nearby oil field. The idea is to inject Petra Nova’s CO2 emissions into the wells there, boosting production from 500 barrels a day to an estimated average of 15,000 barrels a day for 10 years. Selling that oil is “the only meaningful way for us to generate a return for shareholders,” says John Ragan, president of NRG’s Carbon360group.

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Cost overruns, construction delays

Of course, not all endeavors have fared so well, and Petra Nova might find its path rockier than expected as its future unfolds.

A Mississippi clean-coal plant built by the Southern Co. has missed projected completion targets and rolled up cost overruns to the point that its current anticipated pricetag of $6.2 billion is more than double where it started.

In Texas, construction has yet to begin on a Summit Power plant that intends to get more than half of its $1.7 billion in capital costs from federal grants and tax credits. A $4 billion project in California, which would use hydrogen technology as part of its clean-coal strategy and produce fertilizer as a byproduct (and got only $400 million from Washington) is also struggling to stay on schedule.

Looking at these federal outlays, you would have to conclude that our national policy is exactly the opposite of a war on coal — is predicated, in fact, on a policy of spending almost whatever it takes to keep coal in the game, sometimes with a requirement that it make a serious effort to address its globe-warming, climate-disrupting downside.

It’s the private sector that isn’t doing its part in the building the future, while cynically pelting us with advertising that makes clean coal look like a miracle on the verge of realization, if only the federal climate police would lighten up.

You might also be moved to wonder how much more could be accomplished if clean-coal outlays were redirected to investments in renewables, efficiency, conservation and other initiatives that would be shaping modern energy systems rather than retrofitting an old clunker.

I guess it’s probably not yet time to write clean coal’s obituary. But maybe it should be.


On Monday, March 9, MinnPost’s Earth Journal Circle will present its third annual event focusing on a substantive discussion of critical issues in the environment. This year’s topic is “Pollinators in Peril: Helping Our Bees Back Onto Their Own Six Feet.” Tickets are available here.