Clean coal means worse consequences for the planet and people

by Lukas Ross, climate and energy campaigner

President-elect Trump promised more of it on the campaign trail. He doubled down in the debates. And now it has a place in the action plan for his first 100 days.

It’s clean coal. And even though the GOP platform simply defined all coal as clean, most people mean something a little more specific: carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to trap the CO2 emissions from coal plants.

In spite of the dangerous consequences for frontline communities, public health and the climate, this technology could find a champion in President Trump. “We’re going to go clean coal,” he said earlier this year. “And that technology is working. I hear it works.”

The problem is Trump heard wrong.

The problem is Trump heard wrong. CCS has failed almost everywhere it’s been tried. Billions in federal subsidies couldn’t help struggling facilities like FutureGen 2.0, Hydrogen Energy California and the Texas Clean Energy Project — all of which had their federal funding ingloriously pulled after years of delay. It works much better in stump speeches than it does in reality.

One utility-scale CCS project that’s scheduled to come online later this year, Southern Company’s Kemper plant, is widely considered a disaster. In spite of generous federal subsidies running into the millions, the plant could pass a cumulative $2.8 billion (or more) onto ratepayers in the form of higher electricity bills. In fact, CCS is one of the most expensive sources of electricity available, with new installations coming in at more than twice the average cost per megawatt hour of onshore wind.

Exorbitant costs aren’t the only issue. CCS means an increase in co-pollutants like ammonia and particulate matter, and its inefficiency as an energy source means that as much as 30 percent more coal is required to generate the same amount of electricity. That means more fossil fuel extraction, and even greater impacts on the frontline communities already bearing the brunt of our fossil fuel economy.

Even if these problems could be solved, captured CO2 has to go somewhere, and right now the only industry that really wants it is Big Oil. Pumping CO2 underground to stimulate oil production is part of the industry’s growth plan, and with natural seams of CO2 running low, it is more than happy to take CO2 captured from coal plants.

The problem is there’s no guaranteeing CO2 pumped underground stays put, and when you factor in the emissions from increased oil production, the climate benefits of sequestering the CO2 in the first place can disappear completely.

The president-elect hasn’t been a model of clarity on energy issues, but as his administration gets underway, the contours of an energy policy are taking shape: it is going to be heavy on deregulation and heavy on corporate welfare.

So as an avowed climate denier enters the oval office, what are the prospects for a false solution to climate change that also functions as a favor to the oil industry? Unclear, but CCS boosters could have something to celebrate.

The president-elect hasn’t been a model of clarity on energy issues, but as his administration gets underway, the contours of an energy policy are taking shape: it is going to be heavy on deregulation and heavy on corporate welfare.

Planned for his first 100 days is an infrastructure bill, which could present an irresistible opportunity for polluters looking to secure new subsidies. The prospects for ever deeper CCS tax credits, plus additional subsidies such as loan guarantees and grant money, are decent. This is great news for a handful of fossil-heavy special interests — and terrible news for the climate and a just transition away from fossil fuels.