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Obama: The Making of a Clean Coal President

Political and Economic Opportunity, Green Cooperation Cement Obama's Position

By David Sassoon

Feb 10, 2010

Democrats cannot afford to alienate voters in Kentucky and West Virginia — coal mining cultures hard hit by unemployment — even if the coal industry . The language of clean energy there is still a tough sell, with the imagination wanting for images of what a solar or wind energy job would really look like, and industry still calling the political shots.

In , the legacy energy industries have another advantage: They play powerfully inside a global economic system built on the assumption of limitless economic growth, and which is in dire need of boost in the wake of the US mortgage crisis. The coal supply remains a commodity that needs to be mined, shipped, exported and traded — a BTU bonanza for the nations that have it in abundance like the U.S., Russia, China, India and Australia.

Further, with China already leading the world in the export of solar and wind hardware, CCS offers the prospect of being an exportable big ticket advanced technology that even the Chinese will want to buy.

Coal thus also figures into a larger geopolitical calculation, which together with the exploitation of tar sands in Canada — which Obama has not opposed — offers energy security to North America and reduced dependence on oil from the Middle East. It is a carbon-heavy realignment of energy geographies that leaves fossil fuel at the heart of the global economy, despite talk of a coming transformation. In the logic of the financial system, big investments now lock in systemic commitments for a generation or more.

Debate Lacks Transparency

The debate over the clean energy future has for the most part been conducted inside a rhetorical bubble filled mostly with talking points and sound bites. The analysis that Obama gave Caldwell has not been argued publicly. for a moonshot development of solar and wind technologies coupled with have been publicly floated, but none has had the benefit of an independent head-to-head comparison with fossil fuel energy options outside the political process.

These proposals haven't had the kind of political support that CCS has captured, even though one of them published by Scientific American, projects that solar energy could deliver 69% of the nation's electricity by 2050 for $10 billion a year — roughly the cost of the Iraq war. Under the public spotlight, which would look more like the mythical unicorn: A massive buildout of solar capacity or CCS?

Obama for his part has not helped create transparency, blurring meaningful distinctions between types of "clean" energy. In his State of Union message, in the paragraph devoted to clean energy innovation, he omitted solar and wind and instead listed nuclear energy, biofuels, clean coal and offshore drilling. It set off howls of protest, which he calmed a few days later by announcing that the federal government would reduce its own emissions 28% by 2020.

Still, there has been no serious discussion of what the future could look like with a vastly contracted domestic energy sector, one in which, after a period of enormous investment, power is generated at nominal cost from the sun shining and the wind blowing. It is a notion that could sit well with families, imagining energy prices permanently declining a generation from now, but it doesn't fit well with prevailing economic theory that requires limitless growth to imagine future prosperity.

CCS, on the other hand, fits the limitless growth model like a glove, with the technology from its current size, if it is given two decades of government support to grow.

Then, the fossil fuel industry would reap profits from both ends of the energy lifecycle: selling power, as it already does and will continue to do, and getting paid again to dispose of the CO2 pollution underground. It is easy to see why carbon-free energy disrupts this new model of continued fossil fuel profitability.

What's Next?

"A major multi-year campaign against coal seems inevitable at this point," Davies of Greenpeace said. "We're not seeing anyone inside the administration with a coherent climate strategy, with their hand on the rudder. Even energy efficiency — investments that are of the populist, pay-back-the-consumer variety — have taken a back seat to Big Coal."

Behind closed doors, green groups from across the spectrum are re-evaluating climate strategy, with a new young generation of leaders taking the helm of major organizations more aloof from the inside Washington game and ready to question the meager results of the past decade of climate strategy, which seems now to have imploded: Phil Radford at Greenpeace, Eric Pica at Friends of the Earth, and Michael Brune, who will succeed Carl Pope as head of the Sierra Club later this month.


I voted and campaigned for President Obama too! I heard him say he would do exactly what he is doing concerning coal. During the campaign he didn't say he would do away with coal or forget about clean coal legislation. I have fought tooth and nail to blog and defend our President every step of the way. When I heard that he was going to turn his back on the coal producing states I didn't know what to tell my relatives and friends that are totally dependent on the (coal fields). Besides, some states like WV would be totally destroyed if he turned his back on coal. During the recent recession our state of WV wasn't hit as hard because the mines continued to produce. People continued to have work. This was a good thing because I don't have to tell you that Appalachia has it's share of problems, poor, sick, etc. We didn't suffer as bad as some of the other states like Florida or California. I was totally thankful for that and am elated that the decision of my favorite President is not to turn his back on me, my family, and my state of WV. Coal does cause pollution but, we need to find ways to work around this and keep people in jobs. Before we close down all coal fields someday we can be retraining people into new jobs in the clean coal industry. We have modern windmills in the mountains of WV, also. These feed electricity into Washington, D.C. I'm glad our President is thinking with his head and not totally following a "clean everything up this minute" agenda. These things will take years but, we go forward a step at a time. Kudos to President Obama for a wise decision that will help the climate situation and also. help people keep their jobs!

CCS is not only for coal

The US has lots of shale gas, and lots of CNG imports are hitting our shores, both of which could be pressed into service for electrical power generation instead of coal. The CO2 from nat gas can and should be sequestered as well. I love solar and wind, but the wind doesn't always blow, and the sun doesn't always shine. These two modes cannot provide the baseload capability for an electrical grid. Their unpredictability, especially wind, makes grid management difficult.

I Agree

Regardless of how many windmills we build, if we are also still producing fossil fuel of any variety we need to capture most of the carbon dioxide produced when it is burnt. Carbon dioxide will continue to be removed from the atmosphere to the deep ocean by the downwelling polar currents but only at about 6% of today's emission rate. If we release more than that atmospheric concentration will continue to rise.

I was concerned about trying to capture carbon dioxide from vehicles if battery life, cost, range and charging time do not improve enough to make electric vehicles attractive. But I have recently been looking at using potassium hydroxide solution to capture carbon dioxide as the carbonate and bicarbonate, which is very basic well known chemistry. At the limit of solubility I estimate 11 kg of liquor could hold the carbon dioxide from the combustion of 1 litre of fuel. I reckon that makes it feasible as long as the liquor is changed out every 100 miles or so and sent for processing to recover and sequester the carbon dioxide and reform the hydroxide. My guesstimate for the total cost of the scheme is about 70 pence per litre of fuel consumed, which I would certainly pay if there was no other way. Most of the cost is collecting spent and distributing fresh liquor.

It is not crucial that the vehicle carries enough hydroxide solution for a long journey because most trips are only a few miles and these account for a large proportion of the emissions. But it is important that the vehicle can occasionally make these long trips without delays for battery recharging. On a long journey it would be possible either to make several brief stops to exchange spent liquor for fresh or to simply exhaust the absorption capacity and allow carbon dioxide to escape to atmosphere.

Who Should Pay for Carbon Capture?

Many object to carbon capture because they object to coal, but this linkage is mistaken. Going for carbon capture does not mean subsidising coal. Indeed coal companies should be made to pay for capturing the carbon dioxide produced when their fuel is used. That would certainly give a huge boost to the economics of competing lower carbon technologies. See my website at for more detail.

The International Energy Agency (an intergovernmental organisation) say that stabilising climate in 2050 will cost at least 70% more without carbon capture.

Recent reports from the World Future Energy Summit

say that “speakers pointed to the maturation of CCS and many successful pilot facilities around the world. And they set the expectation that the industry is now ready to see production facilities built in large numbers.”

When fuel producers are obliged to place contracts for carbon capture and sequestration for a proportion of the carbon in their fuel, as I propose, I think there will be power companies from around the world competing to take their money. I hope we will be left wondering what all the fuss around cutting emissions was about.

Two problems with CCS

(1) The US fleet of coal plants is nearing retirement age (see and ).

(2) Coal is not renewable, meaning it will run out sooner or later. Maybe rather than later.

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