Obama panel boosts bid to put greenhouse gas emissions underground

An Obama task force Thursday said that carbon capture – in which greenhouse gas emissions would be stored underground – is feasible. It's seen as a promising way to combat global warming.

By , Staff writer

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    In this April 30, 2009, photo, American Electric Power's Mountaineer Plant in New Haven, W.V., builds a carbon capture system designed to capture greenhouse gas emissions for storage. The demonstration facility is now operational.
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An Obama Administration task force today reported that underground storage of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants is technically feasible, but there is little likelihood it will move forward without legislation to put a price on those emissions.

Carbon capture and storage – or CCS – has long been heralded by scientists, environmentalists, and even some in the utility industry as perhaps the only real way to prevent climate change while still enabling the United States to continue burning its massive coal reserves in power plants.

In February, President Obama ordered a comprehensive study of CCS by 14 federal agencies. Today's report offers fresh momentum not only to the effort to devise cost-effective CCS technologies but also to the push for climate-change legislation.

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Key among the report's findings:

  • CCS is viable. "There are no insurmountable technical, legal, institutional, or other barriers to the deployment of this technology." The critical barriers are legal and economic, it said.
  • Putting a price on carbon emissions is critical. "Administration analyses of proposed climate change legislation suggest that CCS technologies will not be widely deployed in the next two decades absent financial incentives that supplement projected carbon."
  • Demonstration plants to showcase CCS are needed. At least five to 10 commercial demonstration plants must be built by 2016, the report said. It also recommended creating a federal agency roundtable to coordinate the projects.
  • Legal liability issues need addressing. Previous proposals that the federal government broadly indemnify companies if those underground emissions seeped or gushed out of their underground "is not a viable alternative."

"These recommendations mark an important step forward in combating climate change and strengthening our economy through green jobs - top priorities for this administration,” Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson, one of the task force cochairs said in a statement. "EPA is proactively developing regulations tailored to carbon storage technology that will reduce uncertainty for early projects and help to ensure safe and effective use of the technology."

While many environmental groups fear CCS technology will encourage more coal burning and more damage to the environment as a result, some called the report a good first step, despite some shortcomings and omissions.

The report needed more specifics, says John Thompson, director of the Coal Transition Project at the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based environmental group. That includes emissions limits for coal and natural gas fired power plants using CCS.

"We're disappointed that the report does not call for bolder measures," he says. "On the other hand, it does lay a foundation so that in coming months the president can call for those. We need to see his leadership in bringing these forward."

While several utility companies have backed CCS research and a few are actively trying out the technology in test facilities, the coal industry has long had a love-hate relationship with the technology. While the industry has generally applauded demonstration plants, it has resisted a broad rollout of the technology, Mr. Thompson notes.

Coal industry spokesman appeared upbeat about the report.

“CCS represents the next wave of clean-coal technology, allowing us to safely capture and store carbon dioxide," said Steve Miller, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a lobbying group, in a statement. "Investments in this technology are critical, and we look forward to a continued partnership between the private sector and the federal government to ensure its development.”

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