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There’s actually a way for Trump to help coal and still help the climate

Construction in 2014 on Southern Co.’s Kemper County power plant near Meridian, Miss. (Gary Tramontina/Bloomberg)

Environmentalists are terrified of a Trump presidency. So are climate campaigners. But some observers say Trump’s peculiar campaign promises — and in particular, his pledge to help rescue the ailing coal industry — could, ironically, help to deliver one of the key missing pieces that researchers say is needed to fix climate change.

That piece is called “carbon capture and storage,” or for short, CCS. It actually refers to a nascent bevy of technologies that would allow for the stripping of carbon dioxide from various industrial processes, ranging from steel manufacturing to coal burning, and then sequestering it beneath the ground. In many cases, the pure streams of carbon dioxide can actually be used to help push more oil out of the earth in a procedure called “enhanced oil recovery,” potentially improving the economic value of the entire process.

“If coal is to have a future, it needs to have CCS,” said Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman who has tried to convince fellow conservatives that climate change is the real thing.

Yet CCS has been struggling in recent years. The Energy Department has withdrawn funding from several massive projects, and the Kemper project in Mississippi, being managed by the large utility Southern Company, has been faulted for cost overruns. Currently there are 38 major projects underway around the world, including three in the United States that are just about to come online. But renewable energy has received massively more investment than CCS in recent years, notes a recent report from the Global CCS Institute.

None of that, however, changes the fact that CCS is a technology that is believed to be essential to battling climate change, not only because it can take the climate bite out of coal but because it can also strip carbon from many other industrial processes, like the production of ethanol, cement, and steel. August bodies like the International Energy Agency and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have underscored this conclusion.

Indeed, there are visions of pairing CCS together with biomass burning, and thereby creating a “negative emissions” technology called “BECCS” (bioenergy and carbon capture and storage) that would burn plants or trees for energy, capture and bury the resulting carbon dioxide, and then let subsequent plant regrowth stow away even more. The result would be a net subtraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

None of this would necessarily be the impetus for Trump, of course. Rather, CCS could play into his oft repeated pledge to save the coal industry. In this case, by lowering the climate impact of coal burning, CCS could help save it from environmental regulations, as well as a from broader business and investment decisions anticipating those kinds of regulations. And it could do so not just in the U.S., where coal may not be able to make much of a rebound, but around the globe.

Or as Benjamin Sporton, the chief executive of the World Coal Association, recently put it in a statement, “It’s essential that we recognise that accelerated carbon capture and storage (CCS) development and deployment is critical to meeting the Paris Agreement climate goals. CCS is safe, reliable, cost-effective, and efficient – reducing emissions from coal power production by up to 90%.”

On the campaign trail, Trump certainly didn’t articulate any detailed pro-CCS policies. But he did allude to “clean coal,” which is tantamount to the same thing.

“I frankly am optimistic about what a Trump administration will do for carbon capture,” said Jeff Erikson, general manager for the Americas of the Global CCS Institute, although he cautioned that it was “too soon to tell.” But Erikson said if Trump wants to exploit domestic energy resources, CCS makes a great deal of sense.

“The technology can be exported to other countries, so it puts the U.S. in the position of really creating…a new tech industry,” he added.

The most obvious way to support CCS is through research funding. The Department of Energy has already been doing that. Presumably that’s something Trump’s administration would continue. But it’s only the beginning of what’s possible.

Advocates point in particular to a provision in the tax code called 45Q, which currently provides a $20 per ton tax credit for injecting CO2 underground “in secure geological storage,” and a $10 per ton credit for injections that lead to enhanced oil recovery, followed by underground storage. But these credits could be raised substantially, notes John Thompson, who heads the fossil transition project at the Clean Air Task Force, and that would probably be very effective in incentivizing the industry.

“It’s more U.S. oil, it’s oil that displaces what would have come from overseas, and by the way, it also has a climate benefit,” Thompson said.

The other problem is that 45Q has a cap: The credits can only be gained for 75 million tons of stored carbon dioxide in total, of which at least 35 million have been claimed so far. That’s a lot of CO2, but considering the scale of what’s required to start fixing climate change, it’s actually still only a beginning.

Legislation has already been proposed to enhance 45Q while also raising the size of its credits substantially, and support has been pretty bipartisan. Sponsored by senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), it has eight Republican co-sponsors, including majority leader Mitch McConnell.

In an interview, Heitkamp said she thought the legislation could potentially advance between now and the end of the year. And she emphasized that one goal is building a technology that the U.S. can export to countries that are going to be burning coal no matter what — but where some of the emissions might still be reduced with CCS. “People who think that the United States of America taking single action without developing technologies will solve what they perceive to be a climate problem globally, that’s just a formula for failure,” Heitkamp said.

It’s not hard to see Trump and his Republican allies in Congress supporting legislation like this. However, there are more sweeping policy changes that the United States could install that would further advantage CCS — but that might not be as politically palatable.

Taxing emissions of carbon, or regulating them through a policy like the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, would further help CCS to compete in the marketplace. Basically, it would make the competition tougher for its energy sector rivals that emit more CO2. However, politically, these seem far less likely to garner Republican support (Trump has pledged to reverse the Clean Power Plan).

It’s important to acknowledge there’s also resistance from some environmental groups to CCS. Blasting the Kemper Project in Mississippi and also legislation like Heitkamp’s that could provide it with a tax boon, Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Lukas Ross recently stated, “This disaster is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. Kemper is a stark reminder of why carbon capture and sequestration is a waste of our tax dollars and a false solution to the climate crisis.”

But again, many scientists and energy wonks focused on the climate problem feel differently. In 2014, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that when it comes to simulations of the future of our energy system and the amount of climate change that it brings, “Many models could not limit likely warming to below 2°C if bioenergy, CCS and their combination (BECCS) are limited.”

Trump’s pledges to rescue coal by battling domestic environmental regulations may not give the industry the lift it hopes, because market forces have been the real problem for companies. But in looking to the future, advancing CCS could actually make a difference for the climate and the industry.