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Dig the coal, bury the carbon

New coal-fired power plants will capture CO2 and inject it into the earth.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 21, 2009

Coal miner Nathan Genisio bolts the roof of the Gateway coal mine near Coulterville, Ill.

Seth Perlman/AP/FILE

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EDWARDSPORT, IND.; and DECATUR, ILL.

On the back roads near Edwardsport, Ind., jutting from a hillside carpeted with corn, a steel tower conveyer belt lifts from a mine below a black stream that spills out to become a growing mountain of coal.

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Corn used for ethanol may be renewable, but coal is still king of energy crops in the boot tip of the Hoosier State. Yet if coal is to keep its crown, the phrase “clean coal” will need to be more than a slogan.

Power utilities, coal producers, and coal-rich states are racing to preserve coal’s viability as a fuel, as Washington pushes to cap carbon emissions. This region is also working to establish itself as a hub for storing greenhouse gases deep underground permanently. To do that, however, will require technology that can capture carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal power plants at moderate cost.

While many environmentalists decry any further deployment of coal-based power technologies, some people say that because coal is cheap, it will continue to be used for power generation worldwide and therefore carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology is critical to curbing global warming.

“We have to show ourselves and others how to do this – how to slow these emissions – or it’s going to be game over,” says John Thompson, director of the Coal Transition Project of the Clean Air Task Force, a national environmental group.

At least one-quarter of the 30 billion tons or so of new human-caused CO2 emitted each year comes from burning coal to generate power, according to Emerging Energy Research, an energy market-research firm in Boston.

Although solar and wind power and other renewable technologies are expected to generate more power in the future, coal is expected to remain a dominant fuel for decades. With numerous new coal-fired power plants being built in China and India, the US must take the lead in quickly developing new ways to slash CO2 emissions from them, Mr. Thompson says. Otherwise, he notes, the world could end up experiencing what climate scientists call the “more dangerous effects” of climate change.

“If coal is to maintain its share in the global power generation mix over the next two decades, its carbon emissions must be mitigated through the capture of CO2,” says Alex Klein, research director for Emerging Energy Research.

Underground storage of carbon dioxide has been demonstrated on a small scale, but large-scale commercial viability is still uncertain, analysts say. Nearly 120 CCS projects are under way worldwide in hopes of proving its effectiveness.

Nowhere in the United States is the bid to develop CCS moving faster than here in southern Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky – whose coal fortunes intersect where the Ohio River meets the Wabash River.

“The Midwest has got the three things you want most – deep saline aquifers to store CO2, coal for gasification, and big-city power demand,” says Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners, an energy market-research firm in Washington, D.C.