The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama’s ‘clean coal’ investments are now helping Trump officials push fossil fuels

Ductwork that takes the flue gas from the WA Parish Unit 8 stack and moves it to the carbon capture facility at the Petra Nova Plant in Thompsons, Texas. (NRG Energy.)

This story has been updated.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday visited an Obama-funded “clean coal” facility in Texas — and used its existence to advance a thoroughly Trumpian message about the importance of domestic fossil fuels.

“We are investing in cleaner power, and using the carbon captured to increase energy production,” Perry said at a valve-turing ceremony at the Petra Nova plant in Thompsons, Texas, according to prepared remarks. Petra Nova, declared operational in January, is the first U.S. coal fired electricity unit equipped to capture carbon dioxide, the principal gas that drives the planet’s warming, and then store it underground.

But while the message of the valve-turning ceremony sounded simple, it was anything but. Perry called the carbon capture technology clean, but the only novel way in which it is clean is in capturing and story carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing global warming – a subject on which Trump policy remains ambiguous or even dubious.

Moreover, the Petra Nova plant will unleash the captured carbon dioxide into a nearby oil field where it, in “supercritical” or liquid-like form, will be used to push additional oil out of the ground before being stored there. This “enhanced oil recovery” — and the money received from selling the oil — is the only thing that makes the economics of carbon capture and storage workable at present. But also brings even more fossil fuels out of the ground and into the world – something some environmental activists have criticized.

“It is a tremendous example of how investments in clean technology can also lead to increased development of conventional sources,” Perry said at the Texas event.

Yet as long as there is no price on carbon, capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide has a limited future. Not every coal power plant sits near an old oil field.

Even as the Trump administration has seized on this one instance of “clean” coal, it remains unclear to what extent it even believes climate change — which burying carbon is meant to help avert. And at the same time, the Trump EPA has been moving to loosen regulations on coal plants and mines’ conventional pollutants and to stop the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which sought to limit carbon dioxide emissions, ensuring that existing coal plants will contribute more to warming.

The remarks signaled a new effort by the Trump administration to seize upon an emerging technology – funded heavily by Obama’s first term stimulus act and only now beginning to become a reality in the U.S. – and nestle it squarely within Trump’s broader message about ramping up domestic energy production.

The Petra Nova project, a joint venture of NRG Energy and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Corp, is a 240 megawatt coal unit of the larger W.A. Parish plant in Thompsons, Texas. It can capture 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted when the coal burns, according to the companies.

The development of more such projects is very much desired by the coal industry – which Trump has courted assiduously – not just domestically but globally.

“Petra Nova continues the pathway of demonstrating CCS at scale and bringing costs down,” said Benjamin Sporton, the CEO of the World Coal Association, in a statement regarding Perry’s visit. “As he begins to set his priorities at the Department of Energy, we encourage Secretary Perry to support CCS research and development as CCS development and deployment is critical to meeting the 2 degrees climate target.”

But Perry’s remarks about investments notwithstanding, it remains unclear how the new administration plans to further advance a new technology that — despite its potential to reduce emissions from burning coal – remains costly and has struggled to gain a foothold.

During the presidential campaign president Trump spoke often about “clean coal,” and the energy policy posted on the White House website on its very first day of the new administration stated that the administration was “committed to clean coal technology.”

Since then, however, White House budget proposals have appeared to seek cuts to the Department of Energy’s research programs designed to advance the technology.

The Trump “skinny budget” for the 2018 federal fiscal year aims an unspecified cut at the Fossil Energy Research and Development Program, which, among other things, funds carbon capture and storage research. And a budget memo sent to Congress by the White House Office of Management and Budget targets deep cuts to the same program for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year.

Carbon capture and storage research isn’t the only type of science funded through this program, but it makes up a very significant part of it.

A press release from Perry’s Energy Department notes that while the Petra Nova project did receive federal funding — $ 190 million, including some funding received under President Obama’s first term economic stimulus package — it was initially envisioned as a smaller project.

“Originally conceived as a 60-megawatt electric (MWe) capture project, the project sponsors expanded the design to capture emissions from 240 MWe of generation at the Houston-area power plant, quadrupling the size of the capture project without additional federal investment,” said the announcement.

Obama stimulus funding also supported another carbon capture initiative that has, only now in the Trump years, come online — a project at agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland’s Decatur, Illinois ethanol plant, which strips carbon dioxide out of the fermentation process that makes ethanol.

Both the Petra Nova and Decatur projects are expected to sequester more than a million tons of carbon dioxide in the ground annually, which means that in the context of capturing and storing carbon they would count as large-scale industrial projects.

However, these amounts still pale in comparison to the amount of carbon dioxide that humans put in the atmosphere annually from energy use — about 32 billion tons — underscoring that carbon capture and storage has a very long way to go before it makes a major dent in the climate change problem.

Perry is just back from a G-7 energy ministers meeting where the U.S.’s unresolved position on climate change and the Paris climate agreement reportedly prevented the adoption of a joint statement on the matter by the group of nations.

In a statement on the ministerial, however, Perry hailed fossil energy technologies, remarking that the U.S. and fellow countries should support “high efficiency, low-emission coal and natural gas.”

“Innovation is also a top priority for the Trump Administration,” he said.

— Steven Mufson contributed to this report.