U.S. Environmental Groups Divided on “Clean Coal”

FutureGen pilot coal plant

At a Senate press conference held last week to urge national action on climate change policy, 16 major U.S. environmental organizations shared the stage in solidarity. But while it appears the nation's green groups are united in the fight against global warming, they remain divided on which technologies would best create a carbon-free economy. This division may cause major roadblocks as Congress prepares to debate several climate change policies that could lead to sweeping changes.

Environmental organizations agree that global warming is a serious concern and that emissions from coal-fired power plants must be drastically curtailed. To do so, many support carbon capture and sequestration, commonly known as CCS. CCS technology is designed to trap and store (either in the Earth's crust or the deep oceans) the massive quantities of carbon dioxide spewed from coal power plants.

Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Defense Fund are already lobbying on behalf of CCS. Others, such as the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund, are more cautious about promoting CCS. They insist that affordable and proven technologies, such as energy efficiency and wind or solar energy, should be more fully implemented before CCS is considered. Greenpeace specifically opposes the technology.

A divided environmental community is reflective of a still unproven technology. Although CCS is almost certainly technically feasible, both the timing and the cost are highly uncertain. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology report released last year, The Future of Coal, concluded that the U.S. CCS program is not on track to achieve large-scale commercial operation for at least a decade.

Carbon liability concerns have led major investors and the U.S. government to rein in financing for coal-fired power plants. As a result, the coal industry has embraced CCS as essential to its survival. Some environmentalists say CCS is critical to creating a political deal that would dissuade power companies from blocking new climate legislation. "Congress should require planned new coal plants in the United States to employ CCS without further delay," NRDC said in a statement last year.

According to NRDC science fellow George Peridas, as long as China continues its surge in coal emissions and the U.S. coal industry wants to build new plants, the coal industry must be presented with an alternative. "There are cheaper ways and cleaner ways and preferable ways to meet energy demands, but I think CCS will ultimately be needed too," Peridas said. "I'd love to be actively campaigning against all use of coal, but I don't think that's the best way to reduce emissions."

U.S. Representatives Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts introduced a bill last week that would ban any coal plants that do not capture and store at least 85 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. The Sierra Club supports the legislation because it places a moratorium on coal plants until CCS is ready. The group's support, however, does not reflect an embrace of CCS.

"We need to make sure that the technology to capture and store carbon is feasible and in place," said Bruce Nilles, The Sierra Club's national coal campaign director. "While we are evaluating the role coal should play in our energy future, we should continue to move forward with the clean, affordable energy solutions that are available today, like wind and solar power."

Greenpeace has taken a hard-line approach against CCS. "We are opposed to CCS technology," said Kate Smolski, Greenpeace USA global warming campaigner. "The No. 1 reason is it's a way the dirty polluting coal industry can prop itself up. It's an unproven technology. And it takes resources away from solutions that we can use right now."

The main concern with CCS is whether carbon stored inside empty aquifers would leak and pollute groundwater reserves. "If people think this is the solution, think again. A lot of research is needed," said Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at last week's "Summit on America's Energy Future," sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering.

Researchers are calling for "urgent" expansion of CCS research and development funding. Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Ernest Moniz, also director of the Energy Initiative, said experimental CCS power plants are needed to improve cost and performance. The U.S. government's plans for its first large CCS plant were halted in January when the Department of Energy canceled major pilot program FutureGen after concluding that the costs had mushroomed out of control. "What we need is several demonstrations in parallel," Moniz said at the Academies' summit.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) has organized a stakeholder partnership to address CCS liability, permit procedure and site selection. Participating environmental groups so far have included the Bellona Foundation, Clean Air Task Force, Conservation Law Center, Environmental Defense, Great Plains Institute, NRDC, and Pew Center on Global Climate Change, according to John Venezia, a WRI associate.

"There are groups that agree CCS should be fiercely looked at; other groups will disagree," Venezia said. "Those discussions are important to have."

For his part, Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin is skeptical of CCS. "It will be many years before we know for sure whether large-scale carbon sequestration is practical and affordable," Flavin says. "The only thing that's certain today is that we shouldn't assume CCS will be a major solution to climate change-unlike solar, wind, and energy efficiency, all of which are being deployed on a significant scale today."

Ben Block is a staff writer at the Worldwatch Institute who covers everything environmental for Eye on Earth. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.