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As emissions rise, US coal steps up push for carbon capture

After three years of decline, greenhouse-gas emissions are rising again, largely because of increased coal use. The best chance for the industry to erase its 'dirty coal' image is through carbon capture, which is making progress.

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Such plants are designed to scrub the mercury, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide before they separate the remaining byproducts: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen, which could be used to power everything from cars to power plants. The largest demonstration projects are in Norway, where Statoil is placing 1 million tons of carbon per year into a saline aquifer deep in the North Sea, and in Canada, where the carbon is going into the Weyburn oil field just north of the North Dakota border. If it could truly work at scale, coal would be back in the game. 

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is an award-winning journalist whose work has been published in more than 100 periodicals and has served as a source for energy stories in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, National Public Radio, and Atlantic Monthly. He can be reached at

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“Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a critical technology for reconciling our continued dependence on fossil fuels with the imperative to protect the global environment,” Judi Greenwald, vice president for technology at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said at a congressional hearing this past July. (The nonprofit, nonpartisan center aims to advance practical solutions for climate change and energy challenges.)

Using the captured carbon to enhance oil recovery is closer to reality than permanently storing it underground, she added. Electric power generators, which create about a third of all carbon emissions, could sell their byproducts and offset the financial risks.

Some 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from coal, oil, and natural gas. Under current scenarios, the EIA expects fossil fuels to continue providing 65 percent of this country’s electricity consumption in 2040, with 35 percent coming from coal.

Globally, coal will provide about 60 percent of the electricity generation in 2035, Ms. Greenwald estimates, with most of that coming from developing nations and specifically China and India. While her organization advocates a shift to nuclear energy and to renewable power, she says that the development of CCS is critical. Such technology can store up to 90 percent of the emissions from stationary sources, such as power plants and industrial facilities, she adds.

An Austin, Texas, company called Skyonic Corp. is working on the technologies to capture carbon dioxide and market byproducts of the process: “Emitters that are up against caps can reduce their emissions and continue to expand their businesses,” says Joe Jones, Skyonic’s chief executive, in an interview. “They are not making a dead-loss investment into regulatory compliance. They are, instead, benefiting their bottom lines.”

Nine power companies are interested in his firm’s technology, and have signed “letters of intent,” he says. Skyonic is now retrofitting a coal-fired cement plant that will capture the carbon dioxide and convert it into sodium bicarbonate, hydrochloric acid, and limestone. The company received $28 million in 2009 federal stimulus money.

The company has another demo plant in Texas that is taking carbon and making other minerals at what his business estimates will be a significantly reduced cost. The company is talking to Chinese enterprises. Among the private investors that Skyonic has are ConocoPhillips, BP, and Northwater Capital


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