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CCS: A Piece of the Puzzle

By Guest Writer

Feb 19, 2010

In his Feb. 10 article "Obama: The Making of a Clean Coal President," David Sassoon wrote about the U.S. president's creation of a task force to develop a national carbon capture and storage strategy, calling it as a victory for the coal industry and describing how the backing of green groups had helped to cement Obama's support for CCS technology.

NRDC Climate Programs Director David Hawkins wrote the following response.

By David Hawkins

Let me offer a few thoughts on why I believe this task force actually is a step forward for all of us who want to put an end to investments in new polluting coal plants, increase our reliance on energy efficiency and renewable energy, and prevent disastrous climate disruption.

Our community uses several tactics to block new polluting coal plants. We intervene in permit proceedings and bring lawsuits to challenge coal plant permits. NRDC has actively used this tactic, joining the outstanding efforts by the Sierra Club and others. Another tactic, that NRDC also has pursued, is advocacy with Wall Street investors to convince them that investments in new polluting coal plants are a bad bet. A third is advocacy for performance standards that would make it legally impossible for new polluting coal plants to be built. NRDC worked hard to get such a law enacted in California and is seeking such standards in federal legislation. A fourth is to create a broad consensus that no new coal plant should be built unless it captures its carbon.

This last approach, which NRDC has pursued as well, is controversial in our community because it does not call for an absolute bar on new coal plants regardless of environmental performance and it lends legitimacy to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. I certainly understand the controversy — after all, if the coal industry seems to be supporting CCS, there is good reason to suspect something nefarious. And Mike Brune is right that the coal industry has a perfect record in speaking with a forked tongue on CCS — claiming that it is an essential technology, arguing that it is not ready, and then working to block any policy that would require it to be used. But the coal industry's duplicity should not keep us from assessing for ourselves whether CCS can help us stave off climate destruction and increase our use of cleaner energy.

As a community, we have achieved great success in blocking new coal plants one by one but we need a comprehensive coal policy as well. Showing CCS is an available tool helps us to convince policymakers that they should oppose construction of coal plants that do not capture their carbon. Is such a policy as attractive to many in our community as a law that says no more coal plants, period? No. But we need to ask ourselves — what are the realistic odds of getting Congress or any significant coal-using state to adopt a "no new coal, period" policy in the next handful of years? I have fought the coal industry for 40 years and in my judgment the odds of a total ban on new coal plants are not large.

But we do have in our grasp the adoption of policies that will bar the construction of new coal plants unless the plant operates CCS. Securing the votes to get these policies enacted will require convincing some members of Congress that coal plants with CCS could in fact be built. I know that this is objectionable to many in our community but which is a better outcome: leaving the door open to building new coal plants with no CO2 controls at all or leaving it open only to coal plants with CCS?

Right now, the coal industry uses the claim that CCS is not ready as a weapon to fight mandatory CO2 requirements. Those of us who talk to members of Congress know that these claims are influential in far too many offices. The Obama CCS task force is a way to take that argument away from the coal industry.

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