INSIGHT: US House to press DOE on carbon capture realities

06 February 2014 15:15  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

A carbon capture facility in GermanyWASHINGTON (ICIS)--A US House panel will try next week to find out if hopes for wide scale use of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) are realistic - or just smoke and mirrors meant to camouflage a campaign to shut down coal-fired electricity in the US.

Representative Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, the Republican chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, has asked Department of Energy (DOE) officials to appear on 11 February to demonstrate whether nearly $7bn spent on federal CCS research and development (R&D) has made even incremental progress toward demonstrating CCS as a viable, cost-effective technology for the real world.

The issue is critical because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving with deliberate speed to impose carbon emissions limits on future power plants, and eventually existing electric utilities, which would for all practical purposes bar the use of coal as a utility fuel.

In EPA’s proposed rule affecting future power plants, first aired last year and then issued in formal form in January this year, EPA said that under authority of the Clean Air Act (CAA) it will set a limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour (MWh) for any new power plant to be built after the rule becomes final.

The agency also is working on a similar rule affecting existing power plants. That proposal is expected in June.

Critics charge that in setting the CO2 emissions limit at 1,100 pounds/MWh, EPA is essentially barring the construction of any new coal-fired electric utility, arguing that even the most emissions-efficient coal-fired power units operating today have CO2 emission levels nearly twice that amount.

But EPA contends that any new coal-fired plant could meet the proposed emissions cap if it incorporates carbon capture and sequestration technologies that it claims “have been adequately demonstrated” as the CAA requires.

That EPA claim of “adequately demonstrated” carbon capture and sequestration (also known as carbon capture and storage) has raised eyebrows and blood pressure throughout the US electric utilities sector and among petrochemicals manufacturers who as an industry are heavy consumers of power.

The EPA proposal to limit CO2 limits for future power plants has already triggered lawsuits by state governments who argue that EPA has no statutory authority to mandate such standards and that they are in any event impossible to achieve with existing carbon capture technology.

Congressman Murphy asked that key DOE officials appear before his panel to “support the advancement of carbon capture and sequestration technologies for potential future commercial deployment at coal-fired power plants”.

Murphy is concerned because his home state Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest coal producer among the 50 states, and it also is heavily dependent on coal-fired power.

But Murphy and Pennsylvania are not alone on the coal-fired electricity issue.

Among the 50 US states, 31 rely on coal for 50% or more of their electric power generation, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). 

Of those 31 coal-dependent states, nine get 80% of their in-state electric power from coal. And of those, seven states - New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, West Virginia, Wyoming, Indiana and Kentucky - source more than 90% of their electric power from coal.

Even among the 19 states that use coal for less than half of their in-state power generation, many rely on coal for a third, 40%, or more of their electricity.  Alabama, for example, falls below the 50% coal-fired power measure, but the state still relies on coal for 48% of its electricity.

Only two states, Vermont and Rhode Island, have no coal-fired electric utilities.

Even some states that have a low percentage use of coal for power generation within their borders are still dependent on coal-fired electricity because they import juice from neighbouring states that are coal-dependent, according to the EIA.

Mississippi, for example, uses coal to generate only 33% of its in-state electric power, but it does not have enough of its own generating capacity to meet demand, so it imports electricity from nearby states that burn coal.

All manufacturing industries in the country require electric power to one extent or another, so they would also face increased utility rates under the EPA plan, according to the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council (ERCC). 

In addition, many major manufacturing sectors are direct consumers of coal, in addition to being dependent on coal-fired electric power.

Chemical manufacturers directly consume coal for power generation along with natural gas, but chemical firms are by no means the leading or only industrial coal consumers.

Among other coal-intensive industries are paper manufacturing, non-metallic minerals production, metal manufacturing and foods producers.

From power generation to industrial use, coal permeates the US energy and manufacturing sectors, and business leaders warn that any national policy that penalises coal use will have substantial and attributable cost impacts on consumers, industries and jobs.

If carbon capture and storage offers a pathway to maintaining use of abundant US coal reserves, Congressman Murphy says he wants to see some evidence.

Citing the nearly $7bn given to DOE to study and develop carbon capture and sequestration, Murphy asked Energy Department Secretary Ernest Moniz to provide appropriate officials to testify about whether the department has made any progress.

“In light of the amount of funding authorised [for CCS research and development], and recent regulatory proposals by the Environmental Protection Agency that assert the commercial viability of CCS,” said Murphy in a letter to Moniz, “we seek to understand the extent to which DOE programs have contributed to advancements with respect to research, development and demonstration of CCS technologies.”

Murphy noted that a comprehensive 2010 report on CCS by the federal Interagency Task Force on CCS “identified certain barriers to deployment of CCS, including the availability of suitably large, secure geologic reservoirs, the cost of CO2 capture, transport and storage, long-term liability of sequestration sites, the need for a legal/regulatory framework, and public awareness and support”.

The congressman also asked Muniz or his representatives to address “EPA’s recent determination that CO2 capture is ‘adequately demonstrated’”.

It should be an interesting hearing.

Paul Hodges studies key influences shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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