Coal's Pipedream?

Friday, June 5, 2009

President Obama should be applauded for taking climate change seriously, recognizing that the phenomenon can be traced to the burning of fossil fuels and intensifying the search for viable solutions. In one of its centerpiece initiatives, however, the administration may be digging a very expensive dry hole.

I mean that literally. The plan is to meet ambitious targets for limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases through development and widespread use of an unproven technology known as -- prepare for your eyes to glaze over -- carbon capture and storage. That clunky phrase has a simple meaning: Siphon off the carbon dioxide from the smokestacks of power plants, before the stuff has a chance to warm the atmosphere, and pump it deep underground where it can be entombed forever. Theoretically.

This idea is fundamental to the "clean coal" initiative that Obama and many in Congress tout so enthusiastically. About half the electricity consumed in this country is produced in coal-fired power plants -- which is not surprising, given that the supply is so abundant that the United States has been called "the Saudi Arabia of coal."

Power plants fueled by natural gas release less carbon dioxide -- but natural gas is more expensive. Nuclear power plants release no carbon dioxide at all -- but there's the problem of what to do with the nuclear waste. It's no surprise that the climate change policy being developed by the White House and Congress assumes that coal -- responsible for 36 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Energy Department -- will continue to play a dominant role in keeping the lights on and the air conditioners humming.

"This is America -- we figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years," Obama said last year during the campaign. "You can't tell me we can't figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work."

Maybe, maybe not. It is indeed feasible to capture the carbon produced by coal-burning power plants and bury it. But it is expensive -- a power plant capable of carbon capture would cost up to 50 percent more to build than a conventional plant, and that doesn't take into account the cost of the massive infrastructure needed to transport the carbon to storage sites and pump it underground.

And would the stuff stay down there? The whole point of the exercise, remember, would be to keep the carbon dioxide from getting into the atmosphere, where it would contribute to climate change. The idea is to confine it in specific types of geological formations that would contain it indefinitely. But scientists acknowledge that they can't be certain that the carbon dioxide will never migrate.

Scientists and engineers will have to prove that the possibility of a sudden, catastrophic carbon dioxide release from a storage site is exceedingly remote. I say "catastrophic" because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, and a ground-hugging cloud would suffocate anyone it enveloped. That is what happened in Cameroon in 1986, when naturally occurring carbon dioxide trapped at the bottom of Lake Nyos erupted and killed 1,746 people in nearby villages. Presumably, storage sites would not be located near population centers.

Perhaps more difficult will be proving that the carbon won't seep out slowly, say at a rate of 1 or 2 percent a year. There would be no health risk from a gradual escape, but we'd have gone to great trouble and expense, and the carbon dioxide would have made its way into the atmosphere after all.

Meanwhile, hydrologists are worried that the buried carbon dioxide -- mixed with other pollutants produced by the burning of coal -- could migrate in unforeseen ways and contaminate sources of groundwater.

It may be possible to answer all these concerns, but there's a larger question: Is this really a good idea? Is this the legacy we want to leave to future generations -- thousands of sites, labeled "off-limits," where we've deposited the harmful residue of our toxic addiction to fossil fuels?

The Obama administration is spending $2.4 billion from the stimulus package on carbon capture and storage projects -- a mere down payment. Imagine what that money could do if it were spent on solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. Imagine if we actually tried to solve the problem rather than bury it.

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