Tuesday, November 9, 2010

RIP, "Clean" Coal

Rest in peace, "clean" coal. Such a tragic death -- killed by the people who claimed to love it. With "clean" coal's best interests at heart, they blocked the only thing that could've kept it alive: A comprehensive climate & energy bill.

"Clean" coal's death came late Tuesday night when the usual midterm party pendulum swing pushed a group of Tea Party Republicans into power & installed several new self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives in the Senate. They're talking about cutting the budget -- a death knell for the absolutely enormous sums of money "clean" coal needs to escape from Imaginationland.

The American Clean Energy & Security (ACES) Act that passed the House had an estimated $177 billion dollars for carbon capture & storage (CCS) research & development and implementation, negotiated in large part by ... Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), who was defeated last week. The moment for a big climate & energy bill - when George Voinovich would go along with it because it had "clean" coal subsidies & Bernie Sanders would go along because it had a carbon cap - is gone.

President Obama has pledged to keep pursuing energy goals in smaller pieces. Energy efficiency, nuclear loan guarantees, natural gas and even a renewable energy standard all stand a chance by being able to claim (rightly or wrongly) that they won't add to the deficit. But CCS needs tens of billlions of dollars in research & development -- plus tens of billions more to subsidize its high cost. If "clean" coal has to stand alone, it faces a much steeper hill to climb to get even a fraction of the support it could've gotten under a climate bill.

What's the biggest sign "clean" coal's moment has passed? Big Coal's allies are panicking. Look at newly-elected Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). He hasn't even been sworn in yet and he's reportedly threatening to switch parties unless Democrats will seat him on the Energy & Natural Resources Committee (where he'd be able to most directly shill for coal) and support a pet project to convert coal to diesel fuel.

It's not like Big Coal wasn't warned. When the Senate punted on a climate & energy bill this summer, Grist's David Roberts predicted the coal industry would regret it:
Big Coal will be back begging for cap-and-trade: No, really. Right now there are EPA rules in the pipeline that are going to shut down a third or more of the existing coal fleet. No new coal plants are going to get built -- they're not cost-competitive with natural gas or wind, and every one runs into a buzzsaw of grassroots opposition. In other words, carbon caps or no carbon caps, Big Coal is in trouble. Sooner or later, the industry will realize that the funding it can get from cap-and-trade, to support carbon capture and sequestration, is its only path to survival. Robert Byrd tried to tell the industry the truth before he died. Byron Dorgan tried to tell it the truth just the other day. By 2012, certainly by 2015 when many of the rules kick in, the industry will be forced to acknowledge this basic truth. And they'll come begging Congress for cap-and-trade.
Note that the threat isn't just that coal won't be "clean" - it's that without comprehensive legislation that carves out a place for coal, the industry may not survive at all. Dorgan told Politico, "The reason I have reached out to the coal industry is that they’ve been on the defensive position, not negotiating with anyone, and they’re going to lose under that. With or without carbon regulations, there will be a substantial conversion to natural gas, and coal will lose."

Sure enough, while Big Coal was pouring millions of dollars into obstructing a comprehensive climate & energy bill, the price of natural gas was dropping. As Fortune.com's Shelley DuBois asked after the Senate bill died, "if natural gas is accessible, cheap, clean, and getting cleaner, should the government keep spending billions on clean coal?"

Great question -- but one the coal industry didn't consider until after "clean" coal had gasped its dying breath.
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