Constantopoulos: Congress agrees on clean coal

Jim Constantopoulos
Jim Constantopoulos

These days, bipartisan support in Congress for a coal bill of any kind is very rare.  Which is why the Senate leadership’s support of a measure that would boost incentives for the development of a technology that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion is so noteworthy.

The technology is sequestration.

This involves capturing the gas produced by burning coal and burying it in deep geological formations, such as saline aquifers.  Carbon capture-and-storage, or CCS, can be done in today’s coal plants, but it’s very expensive.

Now there is support among key Republicans and Democrats in the Senate for expanded research on CCS technology.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, has thrown his full support behind a CCS bill, which is cosponsored by Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, with backing from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. This is the sort of political breakthrough that the coal industry badly needs.

Despite the histrionics framing the public debate over coal, there have long been hints of a path forward for dealing with coal production and use, both in the U.S. and globally.

While coal has been in retreat in the United States, it remains indispensable almost everywhere else. It is the economic fuel of choice for new electricity-generating plants, particularly in China and India.

But without CCS technology, most other countries won’t be able to meet targets for reduced carbon emissions.

Coal’s long-term future in the U.S., as well as any practical effort to achieve global emissions reduction goals, rests on U.S. leadership in advancing CCS technology.

While environmentalists have fallen over themselves congratulating each other on beating up the U.S. coal industry, they are wearing blinders in regard to global energy trends. The battle against climate change is never going to be won in U.S. coal fields.

China burns more coal than the rest of the world combined. India wants to double its coal production, and even Germany, the poster child of the environmental movement for its efforts to ramp up use of wind and solar power, generates 40 percent of its electricity with coal. Just this summer, the German government rolled back plans to reduce its use of coal, acknowledging that doing so would threaten the reliability of the electric grid and send already high electricity prices even higher.

For the developing world and, as Germany demonstrates, for many of the wealthiest industrialized nations, coal is irreplaceable.

This is a reality many U.S. climate hawks either don’t understand or simply don’t want to believe.

Despite unshakable data that coal is here to stay – and is arguably more important than ever – investment in CCS is lacking. New private sector efforts, such as Exxon Mobil’s investment in a company aiming to pair CCS with fuel cells, are promising but not enough.

Logic would have it that environmentalists would be first in line calling for government support of CCS – a technology so critical to addressing rising emissions. Yet, the environmental community has a misplaced belief that any investment in advanced fossil fuel technologies is counterproductive to progress.

It’s a solar and wind future for them, or nothing at all. Of course, that fantasy doesn’t jibe with how we use energy or how we are projected to use energy.

Fossil fuels still account for 81 percent of global energy use and, based on the latest projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, they will still provide 78 percent of the world’s energy in 2040.

Supporting advanced energy technology should not be an exercise in picking your favorite color. We can support multiple advanced energy technologies, be it CCS, next-generation nuclear power, battery storage or more productive and cost-competitive wind and solar.

It is too early to tell which of these technologies might prove to be a game changer. What is clear at this time is that the clean energy technologies currently at our disposal leave much to be desired. A case in point is solar: Despite all of the buzz, it still generates about 1 percent of U.S. electricity.

What we don’t need from government is overzealous regulation and energy mandates.

Instead, smart funding of advanced energy research and development is the ticket. The bipartisan support for incentives to encourage breakthroughs with CCS is a rare bright spot in U.S. energy policy that must be encouraged.

We must recognize the importance of coal – in fact all fossil fuels – in the world’s energy future and plan accordingly.

Jim Constantopoulos is a professor of geology and the chairman of the Department of Physical Sciences at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, N.M.