America’s coal-fired debate

Washington is pumping money into carbon capture and storage in a bid to soothe both green campaigners and industrialists. But battle lines between the two remain firmly in place, says Xie Yanmei.

Coal supplies the United States with almost half of its electricity and provides some 174,000 full-time jobs through mining, transportation and power-plant employment. It is also responsible for 32% of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Unsurprisingly, this emissions-intensive industry has found itself at the centre of a fierce domestic debate about how to tackle the carbon footprint of the world’s second largest emitter without major economic sacrifice.

Politicians from coal-producing states – who need to protect mining jobs to ensure re-election – are pitted against those who advocate a speedy move away from fossil fuels towards clean energy like wind and solar. The tug-of-war between the two camps has fuelled support for “clean-coal” technology, or carbon capture and storage (CCS) – which many hope will provide a way past the political deadlock.

The ongoing tension over the future of the coal industry was on show in April at a Congressional hearing on the issue, chaired by Ed Markey, one of the chief authors of the climate-change bill passed by the House of Representatives, the country’s lower legislative body, last summer. If signed into law, his bill would mandate a 17% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions on 2005 levels by 2020 and an 83% cut by 2050.

Speaking at the hearing, one Democratic party congressman, Jay Inslee, lamented that the world might be free of coral reefs and glaciers when his toddler grandson grows up, because the emissions from burning coal “are destroying significant parts of this one and only little planet we’ve got”. At the same time, his fellow Democratic party member John Salazar gave a glowing tribute to the coal industry for providing nearly 45,000 jobs in his state of Colorado – which has 11 coal mines – in the mid-western United States.

The divergence is symptomatic of the country’s differing regional interests when it comes to energy. In 2008, 45% of the country’s electricity came from burning coal, but in West Virginia – the number one coal-producing state in the United States – this source provided 97% of the state’s power. Coal mines and coal-fired utilities supply two thirds of the state’s business taxes. Ohio, a mid-western industrial state that is struggling with the loss of manufacturing jobs, gets 85% of its electricity from coal. On the other hand, the north-western state of Washington, where Congressman Inslee is from, is powered mainly by hydro-electricity and coal provides less than 10% of its power.

This gap in interests has led to an attempt to create what the Democrats call “a bridge to the future”, which would see coal plants, the largest source of global-warming gases, scrubbed clean through the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The bridge is paved with taxpayer dollars for the development of what proponents are calling clean-coal technology, a system that promises to capture greenhouse gases pouring out of smokestacks and store them underground.

The economic stimulus bill signed into law last year is pumping US$3.4 billion (23.2 billion yuan) into clean-coal projects, on top of hundreds of millions of dollars already provided in each year’s federal budget for the Department of Energy (normally in the range of US$500 million to US$700 million). In addition, the climate-change bill passed by the House of Representatives last year will set aside a clean-coal fund of US$50 billion to US$250 billion (342 billion to 1.7 trillion yuan). Meanwhile, president Barack Obama has set up a federal government task force to speed up clean-coal development.

Two senators from north-eastern states, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, have also introduced their own version of the climate-change bill, which would have twice as much annual subsidy for clean-coal as the bill passed by the House of Representatives.

This generous “handout” to the coal industry is meant to address “regional inequality” says Trevor Houser, director of energy and climate practice at the Rhodium Group, a New York based think-tank. There’s no doubt that a climate-change bill will make burning coal more costly and its costs and benefits will spread unevenly across the nation, he says. Coastal states like California and Massachusetts have the most to gain from curbing the ills of climate change, such as sea level rise and ocean acidification, but coal-dependent interior states, like West Virginia and Ohio, will shoulder more cost of a bill. This latter group of states is so politically powerful, says Houser, that no climate-change bill can become law in the United States “if it doesn’t offer a pathway for coal to the low-carbon future”.

Supporters of coal say that a clean-coal future is within sight. Storing carbon dioxide underground is nothing new – oil companies already collect and inject the gas into old wells to force out additional oil. But there are barriers to widespread deployment, most obviously the high cost of the technology. The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), run by the US Department of Energy, estimates that average electricity prices would jump by 30% to 80% in the United States if utilities were to adopt existing technologies due to the high levels of energy currently required to capture and compress carbon dioxide. NETL is working to make the process more fuel efficient with a view to limiting the rise in utility prices to 10% or lower. Deputy director of NETL’s clean coal Tom Sarkus, is optimistic that scientists will find a cheap and reliable way to burn coal cleanly, but believes “it will take another 15 to 20 years” to commercialize it at large-scale."

Even after the technical hurdles are cleared, there remains another vexing issue – ownership of the surface space beneath which carbon dioxide can be stored. Recent government efforts to build new electric transmission lines and an offshore wind farm have met vigorous resistance from property owners worried about the impact on their neighborhoods and property values. Unwilling to anger their constituents, lawmakers often side with provincial interests against national programmes. That may explain why, so far, there has been no serious legislative attempt to establish rules for picking carbon-storage locations.

Faced with this long list of challenges, Ed Markey is urging coal executives to stop spending millions of dollars fighting his legislation and invest in technological advancement instead. The timetable for emissions cuts detailed in Markey’s bill has already been scaled-back from the initial draft as a compromise to coal-state politicians. But coal-industry representatives are still unhappy and argue that Congress should wait for clean-coal technologies to mature before setting limits on emissions. Speaking at April’s hearing, Greg Boyce, chief executive of the world’s largest private coal company, Peabody Energy, said that the legislation will send utility rates soaring and inflict “punishing cost to our economy and family budgets”.

Some environmental groups are also feeling disgruntled. They say the bill makes too many concessions to the coal industry and devotes too much money to a polluting industry. An advertising campaign organised by a coalition of conservation groups aims to puncture what they perceive as the clean coal hype. One of their advertisements features an immaculately suited man with coifed silver hair holding up a lump of coal and claiming it to be clean. He sniffs the black chunk and exclaims: “It smells good, too,” only to leave a dark smudge on his nose.

One of the backers of the anti-coal ad campaign is the Sierra Club, the oldest grassroots environmental organisation in the United States. Its chief climate counsel, David Bookbinder, insists that a United States without coal-fired power is possible. He points out that, after years of work on energy efficiency, the state of California has kept its per-capita energy use flat for more than 30 years while the national average has steadily increased. “If we could move where California is now, not only would we not need a single new power plant of any sort, we could begin to close down all these dirty coal-fired dinosaurs,” he says.

The Senate bill has to compete for time and attention in a crowded legislative calendar and faces a fiercely partisan climate as the November mid-term elections draw near. It will need to win over all Democratic senators and at least one Republican. That means the legislation has to convince Senators from coal-dependent states that coal mines will keep hiring and that industry will keep humming on cheap coal.

Xie Yanmei is a freelance reporter based in Washington, DC.

Homepage image by afagen shows a poster from the Reality Coalition ad campaign, which suggests that clean coal – like the alien – is a fantasy.