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Coal, Cash, and Climate Change

June 10, 2008


In numerous posts, I’ve written about the search for cleaner sources of electrical power including efforts to make coal burn cleaner [see my post The Search for Clean Coal]. In that post, I discussed a technology called oxyfuel, or sometimes oxyfiring, that is being championed in Europe. According to an article in the New York Times, U.S. efforts to develop ways to burn coal more cleanly are flagging [“Mounting Costs Slow the Push for Clean Coal,” by Matthew L. Wald, 30 May 2008].

“For years, scientists have had a straightforward idea for taming global warming. They want to take the carbon dioxide that spews from coal-burning power plants and pump it back into the ground. President Bush is for it, and indeed has spent years talking up the virtues of ‘clean coal.’ All three candidates to succeed him favor the approach. So do many other members of Congress. Coal companies are for it. Many environmentalists favor it. Utility executives are practically begging for the technology. But it has become clear in recent months that the nation’s effort to develop the technique is lagging badly. In January, the government canceled its support for what was supposed to be a showcase project, a plant at a carefully chosen site in Illinois where there was coal, access to the power grid, and soil underfoot that backers said could hold the carbon dioxide for eons. Perhaps worse, in the last few months, utility projects in Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Washington State that would have made it easier to capture carbon dioxide have all been canceled or thrown into regulatory limbo.”

The oxyfuel process discussed above does what U.S. scientists are trying to achieve — it captures carbon dioxide so that it can be buried underground. It captures the CO2 by extracting the nitrogen from the air used in the coal burning process. With the nitrogen gone, the oxygen and flue gases used in the combustion process form a mixture from which it is easier to separate the carbon dioxide. That’s because once sulfur has been removed using common procedures, the flue gases consist essentially of water vapor and carbon dioxide. Using condensation, the water is separated and all that remains is carbon dioxide — ready to be compressed and liquefied for transport. In the case of the test plant in Germany, CO2 is going to be injected into a natural gas reservoir. The CO2 will enhance gas recovery and then remain permanently underground and out of the atmosphere. The ironic thing is that the oxyfuel process was invented in the U.S. The problem is that retrofitting older coal-burning plants with the technology is difficult and costly. That is apparently why research into other methods is being pursued (not very successfully) by American scientists.

“Coal is abundant and cheap, assuring that it will continue to be used. But the failure to start building, testing, tweaking and perfecting carbon capture and storage means that developing the technology may come too late to make coal compatible with limiting global warming. ‘It’s a total mess,’ said Daniel M. Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘Coal’s had a tough year,’ said John Lavelle, head of a business at General Electric that makes equipment for processing coal into a form from which carbon can be captured. Many of these projects were derailed by the short-term pressure of rising construction costs. But scientists say the result, unless the situation can be turned around, will be a long-term disaster. Plans to combat global warming generally assume that continued use of coal for power plants is unavoidable for at least several decades. Therefore, starting as early as 2020, forecasters assume that carbon dioxide emitted by new power plants will have to be captured and stored underground, to cut down on the amount of global-warming gases in the atmosphere. Yet, simple as the idea may sound, considerable research is still needed to be certain the technique would be safe, effective and affordable. Scientists need to figure out which kinds of rock and soil formations are best at holding carbon dioxide. They need to be sure the gas will not bubble back to the surface. They need to find optimal designs for new power plants so as to cut costs. And some complex legal questions need to be resolved, such as who would be liable if such a project polluted the groundwater or caused other damage far from the power plant. … Only a handful of small projects survive, and the recent cancellations mean that most of this work has come to a halt, raising doubts that the technique can be ready any time in the next few decades. And without it, ‘we’re not going to have much of a chance for stabilizing the climate,’ said John Thompson, who oversees work on the issue for the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group.”

Despite the growing number of scientists who insist that global warming has been spurred by the widespread use of fossil fuels, not everyone is convinced. Take, for example, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer [“Carbon Chastity,” 30 May 2008]. He writes:

“I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier. I’m a global warming agnostic who believes instinctively that it can’t be very good to pump lots of CO2 into the atmosphere but is equally convinced that those who presume to know exactly where that leads are talking through their hats. Predictions of catastrophe depend on models. Models depend on assumptions about complex planetary systems — from ocean currents to cloud formation — that no one fully understands. Which is why the models are inherently flawed and forever changing. The doomsday scenarios posit a cascade of events, each with a certain probability. The multiple improbability of their simultaneous occurrence renders all such predictions entirely speculative.”

Even as an agnostic, however, Krauthammer is not against efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. His concern with “green” laws is more libertarian and his column was prompted by recent comments made by Czech President Vaclav Klaus. “The largest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity,” warns Klaus, “is no longer socialism. It is, instead, the ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ideology of environmentalism.” Krauthammer is not afraid of environmental science, just the way it could be used by zealots to control others.

“For a century, an ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous knowledge class — social planners, scientists, intellectuals, experts and their left-wing political allies — arrogated to themselves the right to rule either in the name of the oppressed working class (communism) or, in its more benign form, by virtue of their superior expertise in achieving the highest social progress by means of state planning (socialism). Two decades ago, however, socialism and communism died rudely, then were buried forever by the empirical demonstration of the superiority of market capitalism everywhere from Thatcher’s England to Deng’s China, where just the partial abolition of socialism lifted more people out of poverty more rapidly than ever in human history. Just as the ash heap of history beckoned, the intellectual left was handed the ultimate salvation: environmentalism. Now the experts will regulate your life not in the name of the proletariat or Fabian socialism but — even better — in the name of Earth itself. Environmentalists are Gaia’s priests, instructing us in her proper service and casting out those who refuse to genuflect. … And having proclaimed the ultimate commandment — carbon chastity — they are preparing the supporting canonical legislation that will tell you how much you can travel, what kind of light you will read by, and at what temperature you may set your bedroom thermostat.”

To prove his point, Krauthammer notes that environmentalists in Britain have introduced a remarkably controlling piece of legislation in the name of environmentalism.

“A British parliamentary committee proposed that every citizen be required to carry a carbon card that must be presented, under penalty of law, when buying gasoline, taking an airplane or using electricity. The card contains your yearly carbon ration to be drawn down with every purchase, every trip, every swipe. There’s no greater social power than the power to ration. And, other than rationing food, there is no greater instrument of social control than rationing energy, the currency of just about everything one does and uses in an advanced society.”

Such legislation is a far cry from carbon trading schemes or other, more benign conservation efforts. Klaus and Krauthammer warn that legislatures telling people what kind of light bulbs they can use at home places society on a slippery slope. I’m not so sure. Light is light. Rationing that light, however, would be a far different thing. Krauthammer continues:

“So what does the global warming agnostic propose as an alternative? First, more research — untainted and reliable — to determine (a) whether the carbon footprint of man is or is not lost among the massive natural forces (from sunspot activity to ocean currents) that affect climate, and (b) if the human effect is indeed significant, whether the planetary climate system has the homeostatic mechanisms (like the feedback loops in the human body, for example) with which to compensate. Second, reduce our carbon footprint in the interim by doing the doable, rather than the economically ruinous and socially destructive. The most obvious step is a major move to nuclear power, which to the atmosphere is the cleanest of the clean.”

I’m certainly in favor research and science. Technology provides the best hope for mankind to move out of the carbon age. My colleague Tom Barnett is fond of noting that mankind didn’t move beyond the Stone Age because people ran out of rocks. They used their brains, saw a better way to do things, and moved forward. That is the pattern that mankind has used to progress from age to age and it will be how mankind moves forward into the future. I, too, believe that nuclear power has a brighter future than could have been imagined a decade ago. France is now reaping the benefits of its decision to go nuclear. As I wrote in an earlier post about the rising price of coal, France “is one of the world’s largest nuclear power producers (in fact, per capita, France is the largest producer of nuclear power in the world). As a result, France’s economy is basically unaffected by the sharp rise in coal prices. Other countries in Europe are benefiting from France’s nuclear power generation since France is the largest net exporter of electricity in the European Union. It’s reliance on nuclear power also means that the French economy has one of the lowest carbon-intensive economies in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). France’s decision to nuclear was based in large measure on the fact that it has limited fossil resources. In fact, France stopped producing coal in 2005.” I’m mindful that security and waste disposal concerns associated with nuclear power remain, but continued research and new technologies will eventually overcome the challenges. But increased reliance on nuclear power is decades away. Efforts to make coal burn cleaner and to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere are required as well. Wald holds out some hope:

“One new gasification proposal survives in the United States, by Duke Energy for a plant in Edwardsport, Ind. In Wisconsin, engineers are testing a method that may allow them to bolt machinery for capturing carbon dioxide onto the back of old-style power plants; Sweden, Australia and Denmark are planning similar tests. And German engineers are exploring another approach, one that involves burning coal in pure oxygen, which would produce a clean stream of exhaust gases that could be injected into the ground. But no project is very far along, and it remains an open question whether techniques for capturing and storing carbon dioxide will be available by the time they are critically needed.”

Global warming believers and skeptics should be able to agree that keeping the air we breathe as clean as possible is in everyone’s best interest.

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