President Obama’s shout-out to “clean coal” in his State of the Union address heartened coal-state lawmakers. Now they want Obama—and Congress—to commit federal dollars to develop the carbon-capture and sequestration technology, known as CCS, to produce it. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., cofounder and cochairwoman of the House Coal Caucus, spoke with National Journal this week about the challenges facing the coal industry. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ You have introduced legislation to delay for two years EPA’s implementation of new carbon regulations. Are you working with Senator Jay Rockefeller [D-W.Va.], who has similar legislation in the Senate?
CAPITO We’re trying to move in the same direction. And I think the reason I’m committed to this is because this may have a better shot of passing both houses and getting to the president [than efforts to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority over carbon emissions].
NJ Tell me about your goals for CCS technology. Do you think it’s a viable option, given that most experts say it won’t be commercially available for another 10 years?
CAPITO In 10 years, will it be ready? We don’t really know. But if we don’t pursue this angle, we’re going to leave one of our most abundant native resources out of the energy mix; and I think we have to have everything, not just coal. We have a lot of natural gas in our state, too, and it has challenges as well.
NJ Would a two-year delay on EPA’s carbon regulations help move the needle enough toward commercial deployment of CCS?
CAPITO It would move the needle some, but not enough. But what it does is, it gives time for the legislative process to work. Maybe it would give us time to develop another strategy in Congress, where we would legislate this rather than letting EPA regulate it. Anytime you can stave off a regulatory move gives you breathing room.
NJ Some other industries continue to push for a price on carbon emissions, saying that’s the only way CCS can become viable. Do you agree?
CAPITO Creating an incentive for the private sector to get into this market is a good strategy. Most of the incentives right now are going toward wind and solar. The president mentioned a lot of green energy [in his State of the Union speech] and then he said “clean coal” as one very small part of that, which gave me a glimmer of hope that he believes coal can be clean enough to become green energy. But there is a lot of competition for the dollars.
NJ How important is more federal funding to the R&D and deployment of CCS?
CAPITO It’s extremely important. I was working on a bipartisan bill last year where we were going to use the leasing dollars from drilling offshore to put toward CCS without an additional tax or additional funds coming out of the Treasury Department. Now, certain things have happened since then—most notably the BP situation in the Gulf, which has just thrown offshore drilling off the table. But the concept of trying to figure out a way to create the dollars for this kind of innovation—not through a check out of the Treasury—is something we’ve been working on. But I don’t know if we have the answer yet.
NJ Do you consider federal dollars critical to CCS deployment?
CAPITO I do. Our challenge is to educate the rest of the members who reject coal as a resource to be used or don’t really know about it. There is going to be a lot of push and pull in the budget, and this may not be the year that we’re able to move forward. Because I think the greater will of the American people is certainly to get the budget issues under control. We’ll just have to work within those parameters.
NJ Senator Rockefeller recently called on the coal industry to step up its game. He said, “If we spend even half of our time fighting for the status quo, we will be left behind.” What do you think?
CAPITO I think we know that change is on the horizon, that it’s wiser to look forward at innovation than to try to relitigate things from the past. But I think what the coal industry is looking for now is clarity and fairness, and they’re not getting it.
NJ How so?
CAPITO If you look into the permitting aspect, they’re not getting answers, not getting clear scientific data as to how they can work within the confines of the Clean Water Act to move forward. EPA has already rescinded one very large awarded permit, and that has a chilling effect. That leads to a lack of clarity and a lack of a way forward to innovation.
This article appears in the February 12, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.