Coal Tattoo

If W.Va. Democrats really want to help coal


Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Sometimes, it’s hard to know where West Virginia could really start in getting on the road toward even having a more reasonable discussion of the future of coal, let alone developing better policies for that future, to help coalfield communities truly prosper and do our state’s part to deal with the climate crisis.

Yesterday’s trip to Washington — and especially the media show that followed — was yet another missed opportunity for Sen. Manchin, Rep. Rahall, Gov. Tomblin, Speaker Miley and other leaders to stop muddling the facts, end the pandering and provide West Virginians with some straight talk about the problems ahead and the path toward a brighter future.

I’m reminded, as I often am, of the words of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who advised West Virginians to embrace the future:

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it.  One thing is clear.  The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

One way West Virginia could try to anticipate change and adapt to it is to become a leader — a real leader — on carbon capture and storage technology. I know, I know … CCS is too expensive. There are too many questions about whether it can be widely deployed, about whether it’s safe, about whether it really works. And, of course, just capturing carbon emissions doesn’t do anything to address the environmental damage from mountaintop removal or coal ash pollution, or the health costs to mine workers and the communities near mining operations.

But some pretty smart people still say CCS is something that our society here in the U.S. and around the world needs to pursue aggressively.

Environmentalists are fond of quoting the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, so here’s what the IPCC said most recently about CCS:

To continue to extract and combust the world’s rich endowment of oil, coal, peat, and natural gas at current or increasing rates, and so release more of the stored carbon into the atmosphere, is no longer environmentally sustainable, unless carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) technologies currently being developed can be widely deployed.

 And here’s what the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a major report issued in October 2008:

An important potential benefit of developing CCS technology is that it may someday be applied to power plants that burn or gasify biomass (plant-based materials). Such a power plant could actually be carbonnegative because the plant matter comprising the biomass will have taken CO2 from the air through the process of  photosynthesis, and CCS technology will then capture the CO2 and store it underground. Having the ability to achieve negative CO2 emissions in future decades may well be needed if we are to keep global CO2 concentrations at relatively safe levels.

Rally For Coal

These days, the talking point from coal and its political defenders is that “clean coal” — their shorthand for CCS, really, since they won’t talk about other ways coal isn’t clean — is that the technology isn’t available, that it’s not ready to be widely deployed.  It’s interesting to remember, though, that this wasn’t the story we heard from West Virginia political leaders not so long ago …

Back when American Electric Power was kicking off its big CCS demonstration project over in Mason County, W.Va., and local political leaders thought it was the greatest thing they’d ever heard of or seen. Back then, CCS wasn’t some far-off thing that wouldn’t be ready for years. It was here, now, ready to go. Then-Gov. Manchin said so, back when his Department of Environmental Protection issued a permit for the AEP Mountaineer Plant project:

I’ve always said that we need to discover modern and more environmentally friendly ways to use the tremendous resource we have in West Virginia coal. That technology is here, today …

Of course, this was back before the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill was killed (before now-Sen. Manchin even got to fire a shot) … once that happened, and once AEP — without a financial or regulatory reason to pursue CCS — dropped an expansion of its Mountaineer project, West Virginia leaders for the most part stopped most of their talk about CCS.  But now that the Obama administration says it’s moving forward to write rules to reduce greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants, West Virginia leaders have changed their story. Now, CCS isn’t ready. EPA is moving too fast. The coal industry needs more time.

There is plenty of evidence that more time is needed for CCS, though we really don’t have much of an idea of what EPA’s timeline will look like. So it’s too soon to say if the agency is moving too quickly.  But one new report that’s out this week suggests maybe CCS could be moved along more quickly than West Virginia leaders are making it sound.  In the report, called Understanding Barriers to Commercial-Scale Carbon Capture and Sequestration in the United States: An Empirical Assessment, University of Utah law professors surveyed more than 299 CCS experts to try to understand the state of the technology. Here’s the abstract that summarizes their findings:

Although a potentially useful climate change mitigation tool, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) efforts in the United States remain mired in demonstration and development. Prior studies suggest numerous reasons for this stagnation. This article empirically assesses those claims. Using an anonymous opinion survey completed by 229 CCS experts, we identified four primary barriers to CCS commercialization: (1) cost and cost recovery, (2) lack of a price signal or financial incentive, (3) long-term liability risks, and (4) lack of a comprehensive regulatory regime. These results give empirical weight to previous studies suggesting that CCS cost (and cost recovery) and liability risks are primary barriers to the technology. However, the need for comprehensive rather than piecemeal CCS regulation represents an emerging concern not previously singled out in the literature. Our results clearly show that the CCS community sees fragmented regulation as one of the most significant barriers to CCS deployment. Specifically, industry is united in its preference for a federal regulatory floor that is subject to state-level administration and sensitive to local conditions. Likewise, CCS experts share broad confidence in the technology’s readiness, despite continued calls for commercial-scale demonstration projects before CCS is widely deployed.

What do West Virginia’s Democratic leaders on the state level have to do with any of this? Well, it wasn’t so long ago that West Virginia was focusing at least some effort on CCS issues.  But what’s happened since the release of this report more than two years ago? As best I can tell, CCS is barely mentioned in the Tomblin administration’s latest state “energy plan“.

If West Virginia leaders are serious about helping to preserve the coal industry for as long as possible, why aren’t they focused on this issue? The only answer to that is that they want to pretend the global warming problem doesn’t exist. Every day, though, that becomes a proposition that becomes harder to do with a straight face. Just check out what four former EPA administrators — from the Nixon, Reagan, Bush and W. Bush — administrations say in a New York Times op-ed piece:

There is no longer any credible scientific debate about the basic facts: our world continues to warm, with the last decade the hottest in modern records, and the deep ocean warming faster than the earth’s atmosphere. Sea level is rising. Arctic Sea ice is melting years faster than projected.

The costs of inaction are undeniable. The lines of scientific evidence grow only stronger and more numerous. And the window of time remaining to act is growing smaller: delay could mean that warming becomes “locked in.”

The continued and concluded:

We can have both a strong economy and a livable climate. All parties know that we need both. The rest of the discussion is either detail, which we can resolve, or purposeful delay, which we should not tolerate.

Mr. Obama’s plan is just a start. More will be required. But we must continue efforts to reduce the climate-altering pollutants that threaten our planet. The only uncertainty about our warming world is how bad the changes will get, and how soon. What is most clear is that there is no time to waste.