Throughout the 1990s, in the face of environmental rules targeting acid rain and other forms of air pollution, Appalachia coal cleaned up its act, literally. The industry innovated and installed new technology, called "scrubbers," to burn its coal more cleanly.
Today the coal industry faces another round of regulations confronting an even larger environmental problem: global warming. Technology offers a solution, at least in theory, but it's not yet ready to be the savior coal needs.
"When it came to the scrubbers, we moved into that arena and did it well. It took us some time to do it, but we got there," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in an interview. So will it work this time around? "You gotta hope it does," Manchin said in a despondent tone.
To survive, let alone thrive, in a country committed to combating climate change, the coal industry must develop so-called clean coal technology that enables power plants to capture carbon instead of releasing it into the air. Failure to do so could have ripple effects throughout the economy. Coal's share of our electricity mix is still projected to be 35 percent in 2040, down from 42 percent in 2011 and 53 percent in 1993.
Environmental Protection Agency draft regulations for controlling carbon emissions require this carbon capture and sequestration technology for any new coal-fired power plants. Coal-state lawmakers and industry executives alike maintain CCS is not ready for prime time, despite EPA's assurances.
"CCS is a technology that is feasible. It is available today," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in September when announcing the rules. "We know that. We know that because it's been demonstrated to be effective."
Feasibility doesn't necessarily mean availability.
"We believe that this technology can work because we've proven it at the pilot scale," said John Cohen, vice president of government affairs for Alstom, a global technology company that worked with the utility American Electric Power and the Energy Department on a pilot CCS project in West Virginia. The project couldn't get enough funds to get past the pilot demonstration phase.
"Until we can do the full-scale demonstration project, we can't have a commercial offering to the marketplace," Cohen said. "No one is offering a CCS product in the market."
The hurdles facing CCS technology include three big ones: costs, cheap natural gas, and government policy. McCarthy has said EPA's climate rules will provide a market driver for this technology. Cohen doesn't think so.
"It's cart before the horse," Cohen said. "At this point, the regulations are requiring a technology that has not yet been developed. That's a problem."
Four large-scale CCS power-plant projects are in the planning phases in the United States, and just one is under construction, according to a database compiled by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The one project under way, owned by Southern Company and backed partly by DOE, has certain characteristics — including ballooning costs of $5 billion so far — that make it unlikely to be a model for widespread adoption of CCS technology.
Cohen said that costs would eventually come down on CCS technology, as they did for scrubbers in the 1990s, but that's only if companies can first prove it works on a large scale.
"At the moment in the U.S., we do not see a path forward for a large-scale demonstration project until something changes," said Cohen, whose France-based company operates in 100 countries.
The factor Congress has most control over that could change things for the better is providing more money for CCS technologies. Retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has said he will reintroduce his 2010 legislation providing more CCS incentives, but it's unclear when or whether he plans to follow through. Most other current coal-state lawmakers have chosen to focus more on fighting EPA rules and less on CCS.
"If CCS is the best opportunity we have to meet the standards, it seems to me we could advance the technology some way or somehow," Manchin said. The bill that he and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., floated this week does nothing to advance CCS technology. Instead, it bans EPA from requiring it on new coal plants until the technology is more widely available.
The coal industry was able to adopt the scrubber technology in the 1990s because the government worked with it, unlike today, Manchin lamented.
"They're not inclined to be receptive to try and find better use of fossil fuels," Manchin said of the Obama administration.
McCarthy insists she is listening and reaching out to the coal industry to ensure it remains viable amid Obama's climate agenda. Regardless, it's clear the Obama administration and the coal industry and its allies are not getting along as well as they will need to. Clean-coal technology needs a leg up from both the government and private companies to get powered up.