Clean coal has a role in our energy future

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Overreliance on any fuel for future energy needs is a riverboat gamble that flies in the face of U.S. energy policy, past and present. Look at Japan, where too much dependence on nuclear energy has proved a disaster. A secure energy future requires resisting the temptation to see low prices today as a rationale for accepting a de facto “one-of- the-above” investment approach for tomorrow. Steady investment in diverse technologies and fuels will serve the long-term energy interests of the nation.
 
While today’s spot market natural gas price is enticing, we should remember that between 1999 and 2005, U.S. natural gas prices quadrupled and then reached double-digit prices again as recently as 2008. A Wall Street Journal headline recently warned that “Gas Drilling Slows, Heating Up Prices” and noted that production is dropping in response to low gas prices. Exports would also increase prices. Strict federal or state regulation of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” could also have a dramatic upward effect on market prices.   
 
The 30 percent price increase witnessed over the last month serves as a reminder of the fuel’s historic volatility. A major utility company executive warned the Senate Energy Committee last month that “putting all of our eggs into one basket would be imprudent and short-sighted.” We currently have more natural gas generating capacity than coal and nuclear combined. By one account, another 258 new natural gas power plants are expected to be built between 2011 and 2015.

State and national energy policy should encourage, not shelve, dozens of utility wind and solar projects and clean coal developments, all of which will deploy technologies to help reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. A long-heralded nuclear-power revival should not be abandoned in the face of new challenges. Otherwise, if we take all these forms of energy off the table, what are we left with?
 
Not all policymakers are falling into a myopic energy trap. Some are deliberately choosing an energy future that embraces diversity. In Indiana, for example, the utility regulatory commission recently approved a long-term gas purchase agreement to diversify consumer portfolios with substitute natural gas from a coal gasification facility. The commission’s final order astutely points out that “we find there is only one clear and undisputable conclusion that can be reached, which is that there is considerable uncertainty with future natural gas supply and prices, and gas prices are volatile and unpredictable.” With this starting point, the Indiana commission finds that the “contract will help to reduce variability and provide protection against high natural gas prices and unexpected price increases when consumers are most at risk.”
 
Clean coal must be part of our energy future. Indiana has supported the $2.5 billion cutting-edge project that uses locally-mined coal to produce 17 percent of the gas needed by Indiana consumers. The CO2 captured in the production process will then be shipped by pipeline to the Gulf Coast, where it will be injected into petroleum fields to produce 10 to 20 million additional barrels of oil annually.
 
The bottom line: This state of the art facility in Indiana will be the cleanest coal plant in the United States and create more than 1,500 high-paying jobs. It will capture, utilize and store CO2, while converting approximately 10,000 tons of coal a day into natural gas and boosting domestic oil production as well. The project guarantees Indiana rate payers’ savings of at least $100 million over 30 years.
 
The Indiana facility as well as wind, solar and nuclear must be part of our nation’s energy game plan. Clean coal is available, affordable and feasible. The President has pledged a 10-year goal to deploy cost-effective clean coal technology as key component of an all-of-the-above approach to energy. To turn the Indiana facility’s promise of clean fuels into reality, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency must act.
 
Rosenberg is a developer of the Indiana Gasification Project and was assistant administrator for air at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission.

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