POLITICS
11/15/2013 06:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2013

Whatever Happened To All That Enthusiasm For 'Clean Coal?'

WASHINGTON -- It wasn't that long ago that "clean coal" was all the rage. John McCain touted it on the campaign trail in 2008. So did Barack Obama. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry-funded group, ran ads extolling the virtues of clean coal, blanketed campaign events with coal-themed swag, and bought advertising in the pages of the capital's political press.

In Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike promoted the promise of clean coal. A bipartisan pair of coal-state senators offered a plan to spend $20 billion to spur innovation on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology for coal-fired power plants. Coal-friendly lawmakers regularly touted the idea that clean coal was real and its deployment was imminent.

But now that regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency that would require future power plants to capture emissions are nearly finished, the tenor on clean coal has changed significantly among coal fans in Congress. The agency's rules will force new coal plants to emit no more carbon dioxide than a plant that burns natural gas would -- which means plants would have to come ready-made with carbon capture and sequestration technology.

The EPA is not expected to release draft rules for existing power plants until next year, but the agency has said that it will not require CCS for plants that already are completed. But lawmakers and clean coal advocates are less bullish on the idea of CSS in general now that it's actually going to be a requirement for the new plants. Despite all the rhetoric in favor of the technology, they say it's still too difficult and costly to implement in reality.

On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on a new bill that Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) introduced last month. The legislation would "repeal previous greenhouse gas power plant rules proposed by EPA," and would then direct the agency to write new rules that, the congressmen said in a press release, "are able to be achieved by commercial power plants operating in the real world."

Whitfield, the chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the EPA's coal rules "unworkable" in a press release on Thursday. "The EPA's greenhouse gas standards for new power plants," Whitfield said, "may well be the most damaging one yet in the agency’s all-out attack on one of our nation’s most affordable, reliable energy sources: coal."

"Their standards require coal-fired power plants to deploy technologies that are not currently commercially viable," said Manchin, who testified at the hearing.

The EPA's acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, Janet McCabe, defended the rules at the hearing. "The standards we have proposed, and they're out for public comment now, are achievable," McCabe told lawmakers. But critics fought back.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) asked McCabe to list the places where carbon capture technology is in development. McCabe listed four plants -- in Mississippi, California, Texas, and Saskatchewan, Canada -- where the technology is in some stage of development. But Scalise pointed to the Mississippi example, which is Southern Company's Kemper plant, as evidence that clean coal isn't there yet. The 582-megawatt plant has been besieged by delays and ballooning costs. "You're not living in the real world," Scalise told McCabe.

"You're saying the tech is available, we're saying it's not," Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) charged during the meeting.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) has also attacked the EPA's rules that would require new coal to be "clean." The group supports the Whitfield-Mansion bill, claiming in a statement Thursday that the EPA is "recklessly determined to phase out coal." The group also has a new site, eparegscostjobs.com, excoriating EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for the rules requiring carbon capture.

To be fair, it is actually difficult to eliminate the carbon emissions from coal. It's not scalable or cost-effective -- at least not yet. FutureGen, the clean coal project the Bush administration funded in 2003, is "still in early development" a decade later.

The government has been investing in the research, development, and deployment of CCS technology since 1997. Congress has spent $6 billion on it in just the last five years. The American Clean Energy and Security Act -- the climate bill that died in 2009 -- would have directed another $60 billion toward CCS. (ACCCE, incidentally, opposed that bill.) The Obama administration has also created a Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage and announced earlier this month that it is investing another $84 million in CCS development.

Coal's problem right now isn't that the EPA is saying it needs to capture carbon. Coal's problem is cheap natural gas. Low natural gas prices in the U.S. have made coal a less-optimal option for new power plants -- even before the EPA issued carbon rules.

Many environmentalists have been saying for years that clean coal is an illusion. One group ran a series of ads featuring "clean coal" with fictional creatures like mermaids, aliens, and Sasquatch. They've accused the coal industry and ACCCE of spending too much on PR and too little on actually trying to develop the technology -- which might be another reason CCS remains a distant prospect.

"When faced with a requirement to actually perform to these limits, the industry has taken a very short-sighted view and said, 'No, what we want to do is block EPA,'" said David Hawkins, the director of climate programs the Natural Resources Defense Council, during Thursday's hearing.

Bruce Nilles, the director of the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign, argued that the coal industry has always promised that clean coal is coming soon -- but it's never quite here yet. He equated it to greyhounds racing around a track. "The rabbit is just around the corner, but you never quite get there," said Nilles. For the industry, he said, clean coal "was always just around the corner."

Now the EPA is calling the industry's bluff. "EPA has made the determination it can be done. The problem is coal is expensive without CCS," said Nilles. "It's not EPA's fault there are cheaper alternatives."

Congressional proponents of the EPA's carbon rules are also crying foul. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), coauthor of the 2009 climate bill that would have set up a cap-and-trade system to reduce emissions, argued that rules have historically forced industry to figure out the technology. "Businesses don't usually control pollution absent regulator requirements," said Waxman. "Once a pollution standard is in place, American industry gets to work and meets it."

Meanwhile, the official House GOP policy page still touts the "continued development of clean coal."

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