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Carbon Capture and Storage – Why It’s Essential

September 25, 2013

EPA’s move last week to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants marks the beginning of an era of widespread use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) in fossil power generation.  Going forward, in the absence of any other technology allowing emissions reductions, all new coal-fired power plants must have systems to capture, transport, and store their carbon dioxide emissions at a rate of 1100 pounds of CO2 per MW-hr.  That is as it must be if the U.S. is to meet its 2050 climate goals. At CATF, we have been working on the CCS issue for the last decade, both in the US and in China, and we welcome this key initiative from the Administration to address climate change.

Two categories of stationary sources account for almost 66% of the roughly 30 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 released globally from human activity — power plants (11.9Gt) and industrial facilities (7.4Gt). CCS can cut CO2 emissions from individual stationary sources within these two categories by 90%.  It can be applied to both new and existing power and industrial facilities, and it can capture CO2 emissions from any fossil fuel source—coal, gas, oil, biomass or wastes.   This versatility and potential to make deep cuts by mid-century makes CCS an essential climate change abatement option.

However, we’ve long heard claims from the coal industry and some power companies that CCS isn’t technologically ready or economically feasible, and the chorus grew louder on Friday when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the proposed rule.  But today, those claims just are not true. For decades, carbon capture systems have been used at large industrial plants to capture CO2 that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere.  Moreover, also for decades, millions of tons of CO2 have been injected and stored at depleted oil fields to help produce more oil, providing a revenue stream for the plant developers to sell their captured carbon.  And integrated systems of capture and sequestration have been operating here and around the world for almost twenty years. This rule ensures that CCS technology is recognized for what it is – a best system of emissions reduction for the power sector.

As Administrator McCarthy pointed out, large coal power plants such as Kemper in Mississippi are currently under construction and will capture millions of tons of CO2 each year and isolate it from the atmosphere.  Other new plants that will meet the standard are about to break ground, such as the Texas Clean Energy Project.   The Dakota Gasification Project has for many years captured the CO2 from gasified coal, and sent it for sequestration in Canada.  These projects are happening because of decades of earlier experience with each of the three CCS component technologies: capture, transport and storage.

So, contrary to claims by opponents of the rule, CCS is a proven emissions control technology solution for coal-fired power plants.  Moreover, EPA has provided plant developers with adequate flexibility to phase in this technology over time, in order to moderate the cost to consumers of implementing the rule.  EPA has therefore sent a clear signal to the market that CCS is needed now for coal, not just in some hypothetical future. As EPA’s modeling in support of the rule suggests, given the current price of gas, it may be true that only gas plants will be built in the near future, but EPA’s proposed new plant rule will drive further innovation over the coming years so that when gas prices rise, and coal again becomes more economically viable, the climate will not suffer.

Furthermore, complaints that CCS technology is not “commercially available and in wide use” now, completely miss the point of how this Clean Air Act program works.  Since its enactment in 1970, this part of the Act has been designed to be “technology-forcing,” to encourage industry to develop and scale emissions control technologies of all kinds.

This approach has worked successfully for over 40 years, for example, with the development of sulfur dioxide “scrubbers” to remove conventional coal plant emissions.  Then, as now, industry complained that the sky would fall, the national economy would crater and thousands of jobs would be killed, but just the opposite happened. Scrubber technology took off, plants installed it at a faster rate than anticipated, costs were lower than expected, and thousands of lives were saved due to dramatically reduced conventional pollutants from these power plants.  The same thing happened when EPA set a strong NSPS rule, based in part on selective catalytic recovery systems, for NOx in the 1990s.

As well, there is no question that countries like China and India, who are heavily dependent on coal, will take notice of what the US and Canada are doing to finally come to grips with the largest sources of greenhouse gases.

Together, finalizing and implementing performance standards for CO2 from new and next year, existing, coal plants are the most important energy and climate decisions on emissions from stationary sources that the Obama Administration will make.  The Administration has committed this country to the target of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 that many other countries agreed to before the Copenhagen global climate summit in 2009. All fossil plants, including natural gas, must have full CCS in place by 2050 if we are actually to achieve this level of reduction.

We must begin today to have CCS technology form the basis for power plant standards, if we are to achieve these ambitious and necessary goals.  This rule is not the end of coal, as some industry critics contend, but the beginning of widespread use of a technology for coal that requires capturing and storing its carbon dioxide permanently and safely deep underground.  There is still time to act, and this rule is an essential first step.

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