The Monitor's View

Obama's drive for US global-warming law

His visit to MIT's energy labs was fine. But to win over coal-state senators, he needs to focus on innovations in 'clean' coal.

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President Obama took a tour of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's energy labs Friday, seeing the latest innovations in wind, solar, and battery research. And he also made a speech there asking Congress to pass a climate-change law soon.

But Mr. Obama's time would have been better spent visiting an innovative energy plant in West Virginia that, starting this month, became the first coal-fired plant in the world to practice what is called "carbon capture and sequestrations" (CCS).

On Oct. 1, the nation's largest electric utility, American Electric Power, started to inject liquefied carbon dioxide, captured from the exhaust of its Mountaineer plant, and pump it into porous rock nearly two miles down.

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This technological feat could end up being a historic moment for the future of the planet – if the process of burying atmosphere-altering gases can ever work on a global scale.

The technology is necessary for a very real political reason: Passage of any bill in Congress aimed at curbing the effects of global warming will hinge on the votes of senators from coal-dependent states in the Midwest and West. And so far, those senators aren't buying into the legislation on the table, such as a bill introduced by Democratic senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry.

Unless that group of senators sees their states having a chance to achieve "clean" coal and can gain federal support for it, the US may not have a climate-change law this year.

Without such a US measure, there is little hope of success at a 192-nation summit this December in Copenhagen, Denmark, aimed at a new world pact on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Estimates on the actual cost for CCS vary widely – perhaps as much as a doubling of the public's electric bills. More than a dozen projects are under way around the globe. The US leads other countries in testing the procedure for its expense and, most of all, its potential risks.

Will the CO2 stay put and not leak out? Are there enough underground sites? Could it trigger earthquakes? Might underground water supplies be contaminated? Without reliable answers to those concerns, the rush to adopt CCS worldwide should slow down.

Yet the promise is big. More than half of the carbon needed to be cut from human activity could come from CCS. And most experts say "clean" coal will be needed because renewable energy sources and improvements in efficiency won't be enough to slow climate change.

Half of US electricity comes from coal. The fastest, easiest route to rid it of greenhouse-gas emissions is by carbon capture.

(A footnote in fossil-fuel history: The first commercially successful oil well was drilled 150 years ago on Aug. 27 in next-door Pennsylvania.)

After many tests, carbon capture from coal-fired plants may prove to be risky. But the public can then decide if the downside is outweighed by risks of global warming itself.

A similar decision awaits expansion of another "clean" source: new, supposedly safer, types of nuclear plants.

Public confidence in both technologies is needed if the US, and the world, can cool the planet.

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