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Obama: The Making of a Clean Coal President

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

Feb 10, 2010

President Obama has issued marching orders for the rapid national adoption of "clean coal" technology. Last week, shortly after his budget address, he ordered a high-level task force to deliver a plan within 180 days determining how "to overcome barriers to the widespread, cost-effective deployment of CCS within 10 years, with the goal of bringing 5 to 10 commercial demonstration projects on line by 2016."

Obama's executive office memorandum looks like a big victory for the coal industry, which was already handed $3.8 billion in last year's stimulus act for carbon capture and storage (CCS) research and development and deployment. He did not simultaneously order a similar plan for a big roll-out of solar or wind energy to level the playing field.

Making good on campaign promises, the president is throwing the full weight of his administration behind a moonshot effort to make coal the "clean" energy technology of choice and open a federal pathway to a profitable future for one of the nation's most polluting industries.

Three factors have cemented Obama's support for carbon capture and sequestration technology: political necessity, economic opportunity and the backing of some of the most powerful mainstream environmental organizations operating inside the Beltway.

With climate legislation stuck in the Senate and perhaps in limbo until after the next presidential election, green groups are evaluating their next moves, trapped by concessions they negotiated with the coal industry, but betrayed by the politics, which has now left them without climate protection measures that were supposed to be part of the deal.

The political strategy was hatched during what Kert Davies of Greenpeace calls the "grim years of Bush." At the time, it offered a ray of hope for climate progress, he said, the touchstone of which was economic cooperation with polluting industry and big corporations.

NRDC, Environmental Defense Fund, World Resources Institute and the Energy Futures Coalition all had a hand in advancing the strategy, which centered on getting the coal and utility industries to the negotiating table; having them agree to a cap-and-trade system to put a price on carbon; and in return giving them generous concessions. The strategy included the calculation that coal industry and utility company interests could be split off from the interests of the oil industry, which stood staunchly and powerfully opposed to any form of carbon regulation.

They weren't nimble enough to change their strategy when political winds shifted, Davies said.

"The 'damage done' part is the hard thing," Davies said. "Once you've said those things and been on panel after panel and flown around the world to meetings, it's hard to back out."

At the Bloomberg Media Headquarters in New York last March with Obama already in office, David Hawkins of NRDC and and Mark Brownstein of EDF led the "Policy Needs" panel of a "Public Workshop on Carbon Capture and Sequestration," which their organizations co-sponsored. They argued that CCS would hasten climate policy adoption and called for the development of at least 5 gigawatts of CCS-enabled coal-fired facilities by 2015, within the context of a larger policy blueprint that included a cap-and-trade system.

About 5 gigawatts of CCS-enabled coal-fired power is what Obama asked his task force for last week, but the larger climate policy architecture was nowhere in sight.

"This clean coal task force is a catastrophe," Davies said. "Nobody is asking the administration for an ROI [return on investment] calculation. We're getting rolled."

CCS Still Expensive and Far Off

CCS technology is projected to be notoriously expensive. No full-scale demonstration plant has yet been built, and the pieces of technology that have to fit together add significant cost to operations.

Capturing carbon is the first step, and still quite expensive. It also requires the plant to burn about 25% more coal to power the capture process. Special pipelines need to be built to carry the CO2 in a supercritical state to suitable underground injection sites; these must be monitored for leakage and insured against catastrophe; and perhaps royalties must be paid to landowners for the use of underground pore space.

All this will take time to develop. A Department of Energy roadmap published late in the Bush administration (2007) projected that commercial-scale application of CCS would not be possible before 2030, saying

"As a technology and a research discipline, carbon sequestration is in its infancy."

And a little more than a month before Obama was swept into office, Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely allied with the Obama administration, published a lengthy analysis filled with authoritative references which said,

"Unfortunately, CCS has four fundamental problems that have reduced enthusiasm for it recently and limited its likely role." Romm cited cost and timing first, followed by scale and permanence/transparency.

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