Coal Tattoo

Waiting for Acting Gov. Tomblin and coal’s future

Here in West Virginia, as our state Senate argues over who is running the place, we’re all waiting to hear tonight from Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who is scheduled to give his State of the State address at 7 p.m.

It seems likely that the acting governor will touch on coal industry issues, probably to confirm he’s willing to continue fighting the Obama administration’s efforts to curb the impacts of mountaintop removal. But it will also be interesting to hear if Gov. Tomblin mentions the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and makes any commitment to push legislation to improve mine safety in the state.

But even more interesting: Will the acting governor talk at all about West Virginia embracing the future, moving toward accepting efforts to limit the negative impacts of coal rather than hiding our heads in the sand?

These questions came to mind today as I clicked through some links that my friend Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone was posting on Twitter about new questions being raised about one of the most widely touted carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) project in the world.

It seems that this consultant’s report has found that CO2 from the Weyburn Field CCS project in Saskatchewan at levels twice that which would asphyxiate a person. According to the Toronto Globe and Mail:

First there were the strange blooms of algae on water that had pooled in a gravel pit near Jane and Cameron Kerr’s house. Then there were the dead animals – a cat, an African goat, a rabbit, a duck, a half-dozen blackbirds. Then there were the night-time blowouts, which sounded like cannons and left gashes in the side of the pit.

But what started as a series of worrisome problems on a rural Saskatchewan property has now raised serious questions about the safety of carbon sequestration and storage, a technology that has drawn billions in spending from governments and industry, which have promoted it as a salve to Canada’s growth in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Earlier this week on his indispensable blog, Climate Progress, Joseph Romm had this to say about coal, its role in the future energy mix, and why the failure of our Congress to pass comprehensive climate change legislation — a defeat that most coalfield politicians cheered — was a bad thing for coal:

I do agree with Hansen et al that the basic strategy is to replace virtually all of coal as quickly as possible …

… I have been skeptical for a long time that we could do more than 1 wedge of CCS (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“).  Research — and reality — in the last year have increased that skepticism among many experts I know:

— Harvard: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 — 20 cents per kWh!

— Study: Leaks from CO2 stored deep underground could contaminate drinking water:  “Potentially dangerous uranium and barium increased throughout the entire experiment in some samples.”

— Underground storage of carbon dioxide may trigger earthquakes, limiting sequestration’s large scale use

Ironically, the death of a climate bill for the foreseeable future may prove fatal to CCS.  It is far less likely it will be ready when it is needed, since it probably takes 10 years of serious effort before CCS is even plausible to scale up.

At the same time, while there’s been tons and tons of talk about potentially troubling state budget years to come, we don’t hear legislative leaders or our acting governor discussing the important findings of the report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and Downstream Strategies about how much the coal industry costs our state budget every year. And certainly, political leaders don’t want to go anywhere near discussing the findings of another important Downstream Strategies report about the almost inevitable decline of Central Appalachian coal production over the coming years.

It seems unlikely that this kind of talk is going to come out of Gov. Tomblin’s mouth tonight … but you never know.