Outside Energy Experts Question EPA Reliance on “˜Unproven’ Clean-Coal Technology

Georgia Power's coal-fired steam-turbine electric generating Plant Bowen in Euharlee, Georgia, about 40 miles northwest of Atlanta is seen from a commercial airliner on September 12, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran and Amy Harder
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Clare Foran and Amy Harder
Jan. 21, 2014, 2:35 p.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should not de­pend on so-called “clean-coal” tech­no­logy to roll out its cli­mate-change rules for power plants, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port re­leased Tues­day that was done in con­sulta­tion with the White House.

“This tech­no­logy is only just gain­ing ma­tur­ity for power gen­er­a­tion,” said former Col­or­ado Gov. Bill Ritter, a Demo­crat, who spear­headed the re­port with 100 clean-en­ergy ex­ec­ut­ives and ex­perts. “We are not say­ing CCS [car­bon cap­ture and se­quest­ra­tion] isn’t com­mer­cially vi­able, but it is un­proven enough to not bank [green­house-gas] tar­gets alone on this tar­get.”

Ritter said that he doesn’t think there are yet any fully op­er­a­tion­al power plants that em­ploy CCS, com­monly called “clean coal” tech­no­logy. The first two gen­er­at­ing plants with CCS in North Amer­ica — one pro­ject in Mis­sis­sippi by South­ern Com­pany and an­oth­er one in Canada — are ex­pec­ted to come on­line this year, Ritter said.

En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy and oth­er Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have re­peatedly said CCS tech­no­logy is com­mer­cially avail­able, and they have cited the South­ern pro­ject as a mod­el for oth­er power plants to fol­low in or­der to com­ply with EPA’s im­pend­ing cli­mate rules.

The re­port, which spans 200 pages and in­cludes 200 ex­ec­ut­ive-ac­tion re­com­mend­a­tions, fo­cuses mostly on re­new­able en­ergy and nat­ur­al gas. The point about CCS is tucked away on page 134, and its lan­guage is a bit more vague than Ritter’s com­ments.

The re­port sug­gests: “In­struct agen­cies that in set­ting na­tion­al pri­or­it­ies for en­ergy re­sources gen­er­ally and for trans­port­a­tion fuels in par­tic­u­lar, the ad­min­is­tra­tion will not rely on un­proven or com­mer­cially un­avail­able tech­no­lo­gies — for ex­ample, re­du­cing the cli­mate im­pact of a fuel with a car­bon cap­ture and se­quest­ra­tion. One ob­ject­ive of set­ting per­form­ance-based goals rather than fuel-spe­cif­ic goals should be to avoid as­sump­tions about un­proven or in­suf­fi­ciently scaled tech­nic­al fixes to [green­house-gas] emis­sions.”

A spokes­wo­man at the Amer­ic­an Co­ali­tion for Clean Coal Elec­tri­city, the coal in­dustry’s main lob­by­ing arm, did not have an im­me­di­ate com­ment about the re­port.

In gen­er­al, fossil-fuel in­dus­tries felt left out of the re­port, which Ritter and oth­ers — in­clud­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s former top en­ergy and cli­mate aide, Heath­er Zichal — touted Tues­day at an event in Wash­ing­ton.

“They didn’t check with us, that’s for sure,” said Thomas Pyle, pres­id­ent of Amer­ic­an En­ergy Al­li­ance, a con­ser­vat­ive in­dustry group backed by the bil­lion­aire Koch broth­ers.

A spokes­man for the Amer­ic­an Pet­ro­leum In­sti­tute also said he did not know of any­one at the biggest trade as­so­ci­ation for the oil and gas in­dustry who had been asked to provide in­put for the re­port.

The re­port fo­cuses more on re­new­able en­ergy and nat­ur­al gas than on coal or oil. One re­com­mend­a­tion it provides is for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to work with states to “de­vel­op a na­tion­wide meth­ane re­duc­tion strategy in the nat­ur­al gas value chain.” Leaks of meth­ane, a green­house gas 20 times more po­tent than car­bon di­ox­ide, have raised con­cerns about the cli­mate be­ne­fits of nat­ur­al gas, even though it pro­duces half the car­bon emis­sions of coal when burned for power gen­er­a­tion.

Amer­ica’s Nat­ur­al Gas Al­li­ance, a trade as­so­ci­ation for the U.S. gas in­dustry, re­acted cau­tiously to the re­port, which also ad­voc­ates for strong en­vir­on­ment­al con­trols on the fast-grow­ing pro­duc­tion pro­cess known as frack­ing.

“From a read of the ex­ec­ut­ive sum­mary, there are re­com­mend­a­tions throughout that could af­fect how nat­ur­al gas is pro­duced and used, po­ten­tially im­pact­ing the many be­ne­fits it brings to our na­tion for power gen­er­a­tion, trans­port­a­tion, and man­u­fac­tur­ing,” said Amy Far­rell, ANGA’s vice pres­id­ent of mar­ket de­vel­op­ment.

“We will be re­view­ing the re­port to see how the re­com­mend­a­tions com­port with a level-play­ing-field ap­proach for all en­ergy sources as our en­ergy de­mands con­tin­ue to grow,” Far­rell ad­ded.

The re­port was based on in­put from more than 100 en­ergy ex­perts, in­clud­ing of­fi­cials from util­it­ies such as Nex­tEra, Sem­pra, and South­w­est Power, and at least one ma­jor nat­ur­al-gas pro­du­cer, Anadarko.

Top ex­ec­ut­ives of these com­pan­ies were among those present at a 90-minute meet­ing that Ritter and oth­ers held with Pres­id­ent Obama last March, when work on the re­port began. Oth­er than those com­pan­ies, Ritter would not dis­close which fossil-fuel com­pan­ies were in­volved in the re­port, but he in­dic­ated that the in­dustry was rep­res­en­ted.

“We did have sev­er­al util­it­ies par­ti­cip­ate which have sig­ni­fic­ant coal as­sets,” Ritter said in an email after the re­port’s re­lease. “We did not have coal min­ing com­pan­ies in­volved. Re­gard­ing nat­ur­al gas, we had a few oil and gas com­pan­ies in­volved, and three rep­res­ent­at­ives of na­tion­al nat­ur­al gas trade as­so­ci­ations and one state oil-and-gas trade as­so­ci­ation in­volved. I am not at liberty to re­veal those com­pan­ies or the trade as­so­ci­ations.”

Steph­en Com­stock, dir­ect­or of tax and ac­count­ing policy at API, said that if the re­port’s defin­i­tion of par­ity was not de­signed to pen­al­ize the oil and gas in­dustry, then the trade group would sup­port the re­com­mend­a­tion.

“We don’t ne­ces­sar­ily have a prob­lem with par­ity in the tax code,” Com­stock said. “To me, though, the point of par­ity is that every­one is treated the same, so what we wouldn’t sup­port is any policy that would un­fairly tar­get the oil and gas in­dustry. We don’t sup­port re­form of the tax code that pits one form of en­ergy against an­oth­er or has one in­dustry act as an off­set for spend­ing on an­oth­er.”

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