Coal Industry Commits Suicide, NY Times Gets Story Half Right

Coal Industry Commits Suicide, NY Times Gets Story Half Right

A major American utility is shelving the nation’s most prominent effort to capture carbon dioxide from an existing coal-burning power plant, dealing a severe blow to efforts to rein in emissions responsible for global warming.

Well, it’s good to see the N. Y. Times get the story half right.

Yes, “American Electric Power has decided to table plans to build a full-scale carbon-capture plant” that would also bury CO2 underground.  But, no, this can’t be described as a “severe blow” to efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions (and this isn’t even the biggest error in the story).

First off, failure to pass a climate bill was the truly severe blow.  This is more like a glancing blow — or a pulled punch — to overall efforts to cut emissions anytime soon.

Second, coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) was never going to be a big player in emissions reductions in the near future (see Harvard: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 — 20 cents per kWh!).  That was particularly true because the Bush administration had already set back the CCS effort many years (see “In seeming flipflop, Bush drops mismanaged ‘NeverGen’ clean coal project“).

The Times spin on this story could not be more confusing:

The technology had been heralded as the quickest solution to help the coal industry weather tougher federal limits on greenhouse gas emissions. But Congressional inaction on climate change diminished the incentives that had spurred A.E.P. to take the leap.

What “tougher federal limits” are they talking about?  If the NYT means the climate bill, well, that died a year ago.  If they mean pending EPA regulations, well, those have always been exceedingly unlikely to mandate a technology that isn’t commercial.

To be clearer than the NYT, “Congressional inaction on the climate change”  didn’t merely “diminish the incentives” — it eliminated the two that mattered the most by far.  First, it killed the chance for a predictably rising price for CO2, which is the vital medium- and long-term incentive for CCS.  Second, it killed the incentives for near-term deployment of CCS that might have exceeded $100 billion, which was vital to jump-starting the entire effort.

The real story here, which the NYT glosses over, is that the only hope for the coal industry (at least in a world that is itself not suicidal) is an immediate, very well-funded effort to demonstrate and deploy carbon capture and storage, as I wrote in December 2008 [see “the coal industry chooses (assisted) suicide“].

This will take at least 10-years from the time the industry (and government) gets serious — and probably much longer (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“). That was true over a decade ago when the coal industry — and car companies — lobbied against Kyoto saying they needed time to develop new technology. But those complaints turned out to just be an excuse for inaction, as many warned.

The NY Times story has a much more egregious error:

President Obama spent his first year in office pushing a goal of an 80 percent reduction in climate-altering emissions by 2050, a target that could be met only with widespread adoption of carbon-capture and storage at coal plants around the country.

Says who?

The NYT offers no supporting claims for this assertion.  There are many leading experts who dispute it.  As I reported last month, for instance, Stanford University’s Mark Jacobsen has pointed out that the peer-reviewed literature says the whole world could  meet that target — and sooner than 2050 — without CCS:

Based on an independent analysis by Dr. Mark Delucchi (from U.C. Davis) and myself, published in several papers between 2009 and 2011, prior to the IPCC report [see here and here] we believe that a 100 percent conversion to clean, renewable electric  power sources … is technically feasible and economical.

So there is no basis for asserting that an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions can “only” be achieved by widespread use of CCS at coal plants.  I think one could make a case that, by 2050, CCS at natural gas plants might make sense.  The fact is CCS is not expected to capture all of the CO2 and having any significant amount of CO2 emissions from the electricity sector won’t be viable, given that other sectors will find it far more problematic to go all the way to zero emissions.  One could imagine co-firing coal and biomass with CCS, to have electricity whose net emissions are negative.

But right now, such dreams of CCS are really counting angels dancing on the head of a pin.  Whenever we get serious about reducing emissions, something that is inevitable by the mid-2020s, if not much sooner (one hopes, for  the sake of modern civilization), we will  aggressively deploy every last bit of cost-effective, commercial low carbon technology.  The NY Times fails to understand this point entirely:

Five years ago, when global warming ranked higher on the national political agenda, the consensus was that this decade would be one of research and demonstration in new technologies.

What’s weird about this statement is that the NYT ends their piece by quoting Robert H. Socolow, “an engineering professor at Princeton and the co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative.”  The NYT actually links to “an influential 2004 paper” he co-authored.  While it’s true that Socolow very much supports aggressive demonstration of CCS and believes it could be a big part of the long-term solution, Socolow’s apaper clearly states:

Unless campaigns to reduce carbon emissions are launched in the immediate future across all sectors of the economy and in countries at every stage of economic development, there will be little hope of avoiding a doubling of atmospheric CO2.

In short, the “consensus” among the experts, including the only one the NYT quotes, is that this decade needed to be one of aggressive deployment, not just R&D.  That is certainly true of all of the leading experts I worked with and interviewed.

It remains true today.  To repeat, whenever we serious about reducing emissions, something that is inevitable by the mid-2020s, if not much sooner, we will aggressively deploy every last bit of cost-effective, commercial low-carbon technology.  If CCS is ready, it will be part of the mix.  But if not, we simply will be too desperate to wait another decade for it.

And so by killing the climate bill (and, to a lessor extent, by killing this latest demonstration effort) the coal industry is most likely killing itself.  Let’s just hope that it doesn’t succeed in killing a livable climate, too.

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