To hear environmentalists and the politicians who cater to them tell it, the United States can win the climate battle by phasing out our nation’s coal industry. This thinking is not only fundamentally flawed, but it’s also keeping America from investing in the energy technology that will be needed to make a global difference in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Global climate change is — as the name suggests — a global problem. Emissions cuts in one nation, or on one continent, will count for little if countries in other parts of the world stay on the sidelines.
U.S. reliance on coal may be ebbing but that’s far from the case elsewhere. China alone accounts for half the world’s coal consumption. India, with its burgeoning middle class and desperate need for electrification, is aiming to double its domestic coal production within a decade.
Even Germany — which plans to spend nearly $2 trillion subsidizing wind and solar power — still relies on coal to meet 40 percent of its electricity needs, a full 10 percent more than the United States does. Poland uses coal to meet 80 percent of its electricity demand. Coal accounts for a large part of electricity production in Central and Eastern Europe, as it does in Asia, Australia and South America. Affordable, reliable coal is irreplaceable.
If we are truly serious about reducing global emissions, we need far more investment in and demonstration of clean-coal technology, particularly carbon capture and storage (which involves extracting carbon dioxide from emissions and storing it underground).
But it’s also time Washington policy makers stop referring to CCS as “clean-coal technology.” Natural gas plants are going to need the process, too.
The technology to achieve this breakthrough can come from national laboratories and universities here in Appalachia.
There’s an emerging mythology in some circles that natural gas is a silver bullet when it comes to carbon reduction. Greater use of natural gas for electricity generation has helped reduce emissions, but it, too, is a carbon-emitting fossil fuel. Switching from coal to natural gas may help reduce emissions incrementally, but environmental groups see gas not as a solution but rather as a growing problem.
The Sierra Club, for example, is poised to launch a new multi-million-dollar anti-gas campaign aimed at fighting new gas pipelines and more than 200 proposed natural-gas plants.
For environmental activists concerned about climate change, stopping investment in new fossil-fuel infrastructure has become a crusade under the banner of “keep it in the ground.” Unfortunately, this crusade seems to be driving our energy policy.
Aiming to dismantle our fossil-fuel infrastructure with overzealous regulation is not the answer. Nor is turning away from coal the answer elsewhere in the world, especially in developing countries that desperately need huge amounts of additional electrical capacity.
These countries, with their expanding middle classes, need energy technology breakthroughs ranging from more efficient wind and solar power to cheaper nuclear energy if they are to modernize without dramatically accelerating climate change. But, even more important, they (and we) need advances in fossil fuel technologies like CCS. We know we can improve the performance of fossil fuels employing high-efficiency, low-emission technologies.
For example, more than 90 percent of coal-fired power plants have installed advanced emission controls. Sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide particulates and mercury emissions are down 90 percent.
Sacrificing our coal industry — and then our natural-gas industry — at the altar of climate change will do little for the world. Technological advances that make it both possible and economical to use these fuels while minimizing carbon emissions is the sort of energy leadership the world needs.
Breakthroughs with CCS technology have been slow to come, but there’s promise. For example, Exxon-Mobil has partnered with a company that is working to link CCS with fuel cells. This process treats emitted carbon not as a waste but rather as a fuel to generate even more power, while cutting emissions 90 percent. And scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have just discovered a way to turn carbon dioxide into ethanol.
Making CCS work is not an intractable problem. The question is, do we have the foresight and political toughness to produce a solution?
Environmentalists may not like it, but the truth is that global emissions can be cut only with major advances in energy technology. And that’s going to require U.S. leadership in developing methods for carbon mitigation and then making the technologies available for global use. This is the energy challenge of our time.
Syd Peng is Charles E. Lawall Chair in Mining Engineering emeritus at West Virginia University.
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