The Next Page: Bury the carbon

July 20, 2008
Post Gazette

Much-awaited legislation on climate change went down in flames in the Senate last month in the face of a filibuster. Despite the goodies added to garner support for the measure, Congress was not ready to limit emissions of carbon dioxide — the major greenhouse gas linked to global warming — for fear it would harm the economy. So what now?

Many in Congress say: “Wait till next year!” But crafting a viable climate policy will not be easy or quick, whomever the next president. Meanwhile, atmospheric levels of CO2 will continue to rise, making future action to stem climate change all the more difficult.

There is a something Congress can do this year, right now, to make that future task easier and much less costly. A bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., and 14 cosponsors — including Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Oakland, and John Murtha, D-Johnstown — would raise $1 billion a year from a small fee on fossil fuel electricity to advance the technology of carbon capture and storage.

Here’s why this measure is so important.

Mitigating global climate change requires changing two things people really love: their electricity and their cars. About 40 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions come from burning fossil fuels — mainly coal — to generate electricity. On average, keeping the lights on — and enjoying all the appliances, entertainment devices and everything else you plug in — depends on coal for 12 hours every day. Natural gas, another fossil fuel, keeps things running another 5 hours, as do nuclear plants. In contrast, wind and solar energy together provide power for less than 10 minutes a day, while all other sources (mainly hydro) account for less than 3 hours. So we have a long way to go before carbon-free renewables can replace fossil fuels for electricity generation.

As for cars, as things now stand, the highly touted “zero emission” alternatives, such as hydrogen-fuel-cell cars and plug-in electric hybrids that run on batteries, are not really carbon-free. That’s because fossil fuel is used to manufacture hydrogen and to recharge all those batteries. CO2 emissions are simply shifted from the tailpipe to the power plant.

Thus, without major reductions in CO2 from power plants there is no hope of controlling climate change. Carbon capture and storage is the only way we know to get big reductions at coal-fired plants. Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the world’s pre-eminent climate scientists — warns that we must reduce global emissions by 50 percent to 85 percent to avoid serious global-warming effects, such as more severe floods, fires and droughts that ruin lives and livelihoods. This is a call for urgency, not delay.

Current technology can capture 80 percent to 90 percent of the CO2 emitted from power plants. Concentrated CO2 then can be compressed to a liquid and injected deep underground into formations sealed by thick layers of impermeable rock. The CO2 dissolves and slowly transforms into solids, making it more certain over time that it will not be released into the atmosphere. Climate strategies around the world are banking on carbon capture and storage to achieve large reductions in CO2 as we transition to more sustainable energy sources.

To date, however, experience with carbon storage is limited. The three largest industrial projects in the world have been capturing and sequestering more than a million tons of CO2 per year for up to 12 years. A few U.S. power plants also routinely capture smaller amounts of CO2 for sale to the food industry (who use it for dry ice and fizzy drinks).

All experts agree that the next essential step is to deploy full scale carbon storage technology at several types of power plants to be sure it can be used safely, effectively and reliably in different settings. Only then will the utility industry and the public be confident that it can be widely used to tackle climate change.

The main stumbling block has been cost — carbon capture and storage is presently expensive and would cost roughly $700 million to $1 billion for a modern power plant to run a five-year test. Despite a lot of promises, neither government nor industry has been willing to put up that much money. While important legal and regulatory issues also need to be resolved, money currently is the main barrier.

The Boucher bill (HR 6258) would break the stalemate in a creative and efficient way by having utilities that sell electricity from fossil fuels share the cost of demonstration projects for 10 years. Fees would go into a dedicated trust fund run by a nongovernmental organization that would identify and fund needed projects; ensure they are properly selected and managed; and deliver timely results that benefit everyone.

This would accelerate progress on a technology that will be critical to whatever long-term climate policy ultimately emerges. When the congressional debate resumes next year we will not have lost valuable time.

Getting on with carbon storage also would send a strong signal to other coal-burning countries such as China and India that the United States is serious about developing a way to reconcile the realities of coal use with the urgency of drastically reducing its emissions. It would show other countries how they too can rein in emissions while continuing to rely on coal for energy — as surely they will — to expand their economies.

While the current version of the Boucher bill is not perfect, it enjoys bipartisan support and can be modified to sharpen the mission and oversight of funded projects. Ultimately, all consumers of fossil fuel electricity would bear the costs under this bill. However, my estimate is that it would add no more that a penny a day to the average home electric bill, or about $3 to $5 a year.

An extra penny a day for urgently needed progress on climate change, even in these days of rising prices, is still a bargain.