Carbon Capture: Reality or Pipe Dream?

Coal-state lawmakers sparred with a top EPA official over the viability of carbon-capture-and-storage technology.

NEW EAGLE, PA - SEPTEMBER 24: A plume of exhaust extending from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, is reflected in the Monongahela River on September 24, 2013 in New Eagle, Pennsylvania. The plant, owned by FirstEnergy, will be one of two plants in the region to be shut down, affecting 380 employees. The Evironmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Obama administration have been taking major steps to get coal-fired power plants into compliance with clean air regulations. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Nov. 14, 2013, 10:08 a.m.

Coal-state law­makers sparred with a top En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency of­fi­cial Thursday over wheth­er car­bon-cap­ture-and-stor­age tech­no­logy is com­mer­cially vi­able.

“You’re say­ing the tech­no­logy is avail­able, we’re say­ing it’s not,” Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said, ad­dress­ing Janet Mc­Cabe, EPA’s act­ing as­sist­ant ad­min­is­trat­or for air and ra­di­ation, at a hear­ing con­vened by the House En­ergy and Com­merce Sub­com­mit­tee on En­ergy and Power.

Car­bon-cap­ture tech­no­logy has been thrown in­to the lime­light fol­low­ing EPA’s re­lease of draft reg­u­la­tions in Septem­ber re­quir­ing new power plants to use it to re­duce emis­sions of car­bon di­ox­ide, the most com­mon green­house gas.

Only four power plants in the U.S. are work­ing to de­ploy the tech­no­logy on a com­mer­cial scale, however, and each one has re­ceived sub­stan­tial gov­ern­ment sub­sidies.

EPA back­ers say the plants demon­strate the feas­ib­il­ity of the reg­u­la­tions. De­tract­ors say they show just how un­real­ist­ic the stand­ard is, cit­ing delays and cost over­runs at the plants as evid­ence of the dif­fi­culty util­it­ies will have in im­ple­ment­ing the rule.

“The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency has chosen a reg­u­lat­ory path devoid of com­mon sense,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in testi­mony as a wit­ness at the hear­ing, adding: “For the first time ever, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is try­ing to force an in­dustry to do something that is tech­no­lo­gic­ally im­possible to achieve.”

Mc­Cabe, who was asked to testi­fy on the rule­mak­ing as well as on a le­gis­lat­ive pro­pos­al by Manchin and House En­ergy and Power Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Rep. Ed Whit­field, R-Ky., to block the rule, flatly re­fused to con­cede any of the points made by the crit­ics.

Yet there were mo­ments where she ap­peared to fal­ter in at­tempt­ing to de­fend the tech­no­logy.

“It’s clear that car­bon-cap­ture-and-se­quest­ra­tion tech­no­logy is avail­able,” Mc­Cabe com­men­ted. In the same breath, however, she said: “We see car­bon cap­ture and se­quest­ra­tion as be­ing a fu­ture tech­no­logy that will very much be in use.”

There was also dis­agree­ment dur­ing the hear­ing about the im­pact of the reg­u­la­tions on the coal in­dustry.

“EPA’s pro­posed stand­ards for new coal-fired power plants would ef­fect­ively pre­vent any new plants from be­ing con­struc­ted,” Manchin said.

Whit­field echoed the com­ment, say­ing: “People tell us they would not do it [build a new coal-fired power plant] be­cause they can­not meet these new reg­u­la­tions.”

Rep. Jerry McNer­ney, D-Cal­if., pushed back, ar­guing that the reg­u­la­tions will en­sure that coal re­mains part of the U.S. en­ergy mix as cut­backs to green­house-gas emis­sions be­come in­creas­ingly im­port­ant.

“Coal can con­tin­ue to play an im­port­ant role, but we must ad­dress car­bon emis­sions,” he said. “The de­vel­op­ment of car­bon cap­ture and stor­age tech­no­logy is es­sen­tial to the fu­ture of coal.”

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., also noted that the private sec­tor would be less likely to in­vest in the tech­no­logy in the ab­sence of fed­er­al reg­u­la­tion.

“You rarely have a tech­no­logy ready to go ready to solve a prob­lem if there’s no cer­tain mar­ket for that tech­no­logy,” he said.

Mc­Cabe agreed. “That’s been the his­tory of the Clean Air Act in de­vel­op­ing stand­ards for new plants of any sort,” she said. “Put­ting those reg­u­la­tions in place provides a path for the in­dustry and then those tech­no­lo­gies then be­come stand­ard.”

Le­gis­la­tion to block the EPA reg­u­la­tion is likely to pass the House but would have a dif­fi­cult path through the Sen­ate. A more tan­gible threat to EPA’s rule­mak­ing au­thor­ity is the Su­preme Court, which agreed last month to look at wheth­er the agency over­reached in at­tempt­ing to lim­it car­bon emis­sions from sta­tion­ary sources.

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