This Texas fight shows just how conflicted we still are about ‘clean coal’

On the path to a low-carbon economy, most experts agree that a variety of different strategies will be needed, from the dramatic expansion of wind and solar power to electrification or better biofuels for cars and planes.

Some technologies remain more controversial than others, however. Carbon capture and storage – the idea of trapping carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other industrial sources before it’s released into the atmosphere and then storing it, usually underground – is one such widely debated approach.

Some scientists have argued that carbon capture and storage, or CCS, can play a critical role in mitigating the risk of climate change – the International Energy Agency, for instance, has made this argument in multiple reports.

On the other hand, other experts have suggested that the practice may be too costly and could even hurt climate efforts in the long run by providing an incentive to continue burning fossil fuels instead of focusing on renewables.

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Now, a kerfuffle over federal funding of a Texas CCS plant, known as the Texas Clean Energy Project, has helped the debate to rear its head in the U.S. again. With environmental groups on both sides of the controversy, it forcefully raises the question of whether CCS will ever become an accepted part of the U.S. – or even global – energy landscape, and what it would take to get there.

– Carbon capture and storage in the U.S.

The Department of Energy first signed on to help fund the Texas Clean Energy Project in the spring of 2010 as part of its Clean Coal Power Initiative, when it awarded a cooperative agreement to Summit Texas Clean Energy LLC to construct the facility.

The plan was to build a first-of-its-kind commercial “clean coal” power plant, which would capture 90 percent of its own carbon dioxide emissions and use them for enhanced oil recovery – a process that involves injecting carbon dioxide back into depleted oil reservoirs to help push more oil out of the ground.

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Commercial carbon capture and storage projects are not unheard of around the world, but they’re not exactly common, either. According to the Global CCS Institute, there are 22 large-scale CCS projects in operation or under construction around the world, including several in the U.S. as well as in Canada, Europe, South Korea, China, Australia and the United Arab Emirates.

These facilities are not limited to the power sector. CCS technology can be used to capture emissions from all kinds of industrial sources, said Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer and carbon capture expert at MIT.

“You can do CCS on basically any hydrocarbon-burning power plant, which can include coal, natural gas and biomass,” he said. “You can also do CCS on other stationary sources – the cement industry has been one target, oil and gas processing and refining, iron and steel are also potential targets for CCS.”

Carbon capture and storage also does not have to involve enhanced oil recovery. As an alternative, captured carbon dioxide can simply be sequestered in geologic formations in the ground and left alone.

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Although the technology can be implemented in a variety of ways, its use in energy production remains a priority for the Department of Energy, given that the burning of fossil fuels still remains dominant on the American energy landscape. Coal, for instance, still accounts for about a third of the total share of U.S. electricity generation.

The goal of the Clean Coal Power Initiative was to cut down on the environmental impact of coal-burning while acknowledging that coal is “likely to remain one of the nation’s lowest cost electric power sources for the foreseeable future,” according to the initiative’s website.

The Texas Clean Energy Project is one of six major demonstrations selected by the Department of Energy for investment under the Clean Coal Power Initiative, all of which involved carbon capture technology. None of these has made it to operation so far, and to date, the agency has withdrawn funding from or suspended four of them, with Texas making the fifth.

– The downfall of the Texas Clean Energy Project

Up to now, the Department of Energy has allocated $116 million to the project, and another $240 million has been pledged. But after a series of construction delays and missed deadlines – and a highly unfavorable report from the Energy Department’s inspector general’s office – the agency has moved to suspend funding for the project. (DOE set a May 13 deadline for the project to secure debt and equity to cover its building costs before the agency will consider any more funding – a deadline it has just extended by another seven weeks.)

There’s been outspoken responses on both sides of the issue. Part of the controversy revolves around whether the Department of Energy was justified in suspending its funding of the project.

Summit Texas Clean Energy and other supporters of the project, including members of the Texas congressional delegation, have argued that the project did not miss some of the milestones the agency claimed it failed to achieve and have pointed out that securing debt and equity before the agency invests in continued development of the project is likely an impossible task.

Other groups, such as Green Scissors – a coalition that campaigns against projects it considers environmentally harmful or wasteful – have argued that the delays have resulted in a waste of taxpayer money, and that the project is better curtailed before more money is needlessly spent.

But the issue has also raised broader questions about the role of carbon capture and storage technology in the country’s changing energy landscape. And even among environmental groups who prioritize climate action, the topic is a source of disagreement.

Some greens, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Clean Air Task Force and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, have written to the Department of Energy in support of continued funding for the Texas project.

In a letter to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, they wrote, “We share your view that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an important climate change abatement technology to reduce CO2 emissions from both the industrial and power sectors. One CCS project, Summit’s proposed Texas Clean Energy Project (TCEP), is especially important, and we would like it to succeed.”

On the other hand, other groups oppose the project at least partly on environmental grounds. Friends of the Earth – a member of the Green Scissors coalition – is one of these.

“We have our own organizational stances against carbon capture and sequestration that we’ve held for years as Friends of the Earth – that this is a false solution, that it is not able to be brought online quickly enough, that it essentially replicates a lot of the injustices of our carbon economy,” said Lukas Ross, Friends of the Earth’s climate and energy campaigner.

The organization feels that carbon capture and storage technology does nothing to address the environmental and health concerns of communities that are affected by fossil fuel extraction activities, Ross said.

But he also questioned the climate-friendliness of the practice, particularly when it’s used for enhanced oil recovery (which, at a time when there is no price on carbon, makes the entire process more economical).

“If you are using the emission from burning one fossil fuel to enable the extraction of another, you are not actually doing something to help the climate,” he said. And he added that devoting resources to carbon capture research could distract from technologies that are already expanding and proven effective at reducing carbon emissions in the power sector.

“We need to give clean renewables the support that they deserve,” he said. “We have the technology and we have the policy solutions ready now to actually get past combustible energy sources. We do not need moonshot technologies.”

However, other experts feel that national and international climate goals are unlikely to be met without applying a variety of solutions – carbon capture among them.

“I do not think renewables can get us anywhere near to the [carbon] cuts we need for stabilization, period,” said Herzog, the MIT researcher. Because of problems with intermittency – solar power can’t be produced when the sun isn’t shining, for instance, and the same goes for wind power when the wind isn’t blowing – renewable energy will remain limited until energy storage technology becomes more advanced and cost-effective, he said.

This means that fossil fuels will remain a necessary part of the energy mix until that point. If we want to lower the power sector’s carbon footprint in the meantime, carbon capture is a necessary step, he said.

This is also largely the stance taken by the Department of Energy. When looking at the recent Paris climate agreement, “if you assume that every single country did everything they need to do under the plan they put forth, it’s still not enough to get us to our long-term [climate] goals,” said Christopher Smith, the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for fossil energy. “Which, for us, is an observation that this is really a mandate and a necessity for innovation. We’ve got to continue to go forward and invest in those next-generation technologies that are going to deliver the results we need to create energy in what we see as being a carbon-constrained world.”

– The future of CCS

According to Herzog, a major barrier to the expansion of CCS in the U.S. comes from a lack of policy support, which translates to a lack of a market for the technology. He pointed out that tight emissions regulations on coal-fired electricity generation in Canada aided in the commercial success of the Boundary Dam carbon capture project, a clean-coal project that came online in 2014.

“That was sort of a technology-forcing policy,” he said. But in the U.S., particularly with the Clean Power Plan remaining in legal limbo, those types of stringent policies curtailing emissions don’t yet exist.

And Smith noted that this has been a major hurdle for the CCS and clean coal demonstrations the Department of Energy has been involved with so far.

“In order to move the technology forward, and in order to reduce costs, we actually have to get these big demonstrations built,” he said. “But we’re doing these in an environment where it’s essentially free by law to emit as much carbon pollution into the environment as you want to. And so we’re trying to move forward on projects that capture the carbon dioxide in an environment where companies aren’t required to do so – and that introduces some commercial complexities.”

This could continue to present a challenge for the future advancement of CCS technology, which still has improvements to be made. Finding ways to reduce costs is obviously a major priority, according to Smith. But in the future, he also hopes to see new breakthroughs in the way carbon sources are actually combusted that would make it easier to capture pure streams of carbon dioxide.

Additionally, the debate among climate activists about whether the technology is worth our investment in the first place – and whether it could even be detrimental to other climate efforts, such as the expansion of renewables – will likely not disappear any time soon. But those in favor of CCS remain optimistic.

“It’s an exciting time to be working on these technologies,” Smith said. “There are big big challenges, but we certainly do see that the innovations that are coming out of this program in terms of reducing emissions out of fossil fuel sources are going to be a critical component in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”