On April 1, three senators who have been bashing the EPA pinata the hardest announced their introduction of a bipartisan bill to begin cleaning up carbon pollution from coal plants.
An April Fool's joke, right? Actually, no. Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) are three senators backing legislation to squelch the Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory authority over greenhouse gas emissions, temporarily in Rocky's case, permanently in the case of the other two.
They've teamed up with Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) to sponsor a bill that would facilitate large-scale carbon sequestration demonstration projects.
Sequestration is only one piece of the very large jigsaw puzzle that will have to be assembled for tamping down carbon pollution. There's only one way to find out, however, whether capturing and burying large quantities of carbon dioxide from coal plants would work in the real world - try it out, at scale, in a demonstration program that meets federal standards for protecting drinking water supplies, monitoring for leaks, fixing leaks, and putting up enough financial guarantees to ensure that sequestration site owners don't make like dodgy hardrock mining outfits and walk away from failing CO2 garbage cans, leaving a mess for the taxpayers to clean up.
The bill would set up such a demonstration program, which follows the recommendation of a 2007 MIT report that assessed the future of coal. MIT's conclusion: coal is cheap and abundant, it will be used because it is cheap and abundant, carbon dioxide emissions would more than double under a business-as-usual scenario, so the only way to head off an extremely dangerous gamble with climate stability would be capturing and storing CO2 underground forever. Before gigatons of CO2 could be captured and stored, the technology must be demonstrated, at large enough scales to tell the technical experts and the politicians what works and what doesn't.
So, it's good to have Republicans and Democrats coming together to push a bill that would create a regulatory framework for a large-scale demonstration program. Yet the legislation begs a very large question that was spotlighted clearly in MIT's report. Capturing and storing carbon dioxide would cost money - an estimated $30 per metric ton if you include the full range of capture, pressurization, transport, and storage costs. MIT says the costs might be higher or lower, depending on how the technology develops, but it certainly wouldn't be free.
And unless it were free, there would be no reason for utilities to shoulder the costs of grabbing and burying the CO2 coming out of their coal plants, no matter how sophisticated and cutting-edge the technology is. You'd need a regulatory driver - like the standards that required automakers to install pollution control equipment on motor vehicles and cities to treat sewage before tossing it into rivers.
So, here are questions for Rocky, Murkowski, and Barrasso. Let's say demonstration projects show that capture and sequestration is a practical technology. If EPA were stripped of its Clean Air Act authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, would Congress cap CO2 emissions, tax them, or some combination of the two in order to provide the regulatory driver necessary for installing capture and sequestration equipment at power plants? If not, what would prompt utilities to take on those costs?
If we don't press for answers to those fundamental questions, the joke would be on us.
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