When it comes to energy policy we, as a nation, find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. On one hand, the demands of our modern, globally competitive economy require that we burn cheap and abundant coal as a primary means of power generation. Indeed, global coal consumption is projected to increase 56 percent by 2035.

Yet, on the other hand, we are nearing a collective realization that the coal we burn is a primary contributor to the frightening specter of climate change. Sound science estimates that the economic costs of doing nothing could substantially exceed the costs of aggressive carbon reduction policies, and that the longer we wait to address the issue, the more it will cost. These two prominent features of our time—global competition and climate change—are on a collision course that seems destined to end in disaster. 

Conceptually, carbon capture and sequestration has for years been seen as the answer to this dilemma. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suggested that CCS at power plants could prove essential to restrain global warming. But the high cost of capturing, and then sequestering carbon, has made this solution unfeasible. Now, thanks to increasing advances in the science of CCS, coupled with the rapid rise of vast new potential  for CO2 in America’s oil fields, a solution is emerging—one that renders carbon capture models economically viable, and that holds the added promise of reducing our nation’s dependence on foreign oil. As David Crane, president and CEO of NRG, said, “the best way for us to avoid the harmful consequences of emitting carbon into the atmosphere is to turn it into a productive asset here on Earth."

Carbon has already proved to be an effective and highly economical means by which to enhance oil recovery from gas and oil wells. The dream of creating efficient, fully integrated carbon capture and utilization models is becoming a reality. In September, NRG Energy and a Japanese partner broke ground on an estimated $1 billion project in Texas. Roughly 90 percent of the carbon captured from the existing coal-fired power plant will be shipped 80 miles by pipeline to oil companies and used to produce petroleum. 

 A 2012 National Coal Council study estimated that advanced coal technology, coupled with the use of carbon for enhanced oil recovery, could lead to $200 billion annually in coal sales, $60 billion in federal, state and local taxes and the creation of 1 million jobs.  And now, research is underway suggesting that carbon may also be well suited to promote methane recovery from un-mineable coal seams, and as a substitute for water in the fracking process.  CO2 is fast becoming a valuable, highly sought commodity that will mitigate the costs associated with its capture. It brings economic viability to the construction or retrofit of coal burning power generators that can capture and sell carbon to enhance the production of domestic energy.

Positioning CCS power generation in close proximity to large oil and gas plays will minimize carbon transportation expenses, making regions like coal-rich eastern Ohio, home of the massive Utica play, especially attractive. Carbon capture power generation in the Ohio River Valley will strengthen a depressed coal-based economy throughout the Appalachian basin, and create countless jobs associated with construction, power generation, distribution systems, and in oil and gas production.

All this can be accomplished while creating positive impacts on the environment, ensuring the integrity of the grid, and making our nation more secure by advancing energy independence.  As an added benefit, the build out of this industry will inevitably serve to push the technology associated with carbon capture and utilization. 

A paradigm shift will be necessary before the full potential of clean coal can be realized.  That will require recognition from conservatives that climate change is real; and acknowledgment by liberals that we cannot magically erase coal from our nation’s energy policy. The prospects for such a transformation are good. Clean coal today is abundant, affordable and feasible, all critical requirements for electricity generation that barely met American’s power needs during last winter’s polar vortex. With appropriate near term investments in research, development and construction of advanced technologies, coal can revitalize the way we produce and consume energy in an environmentally-responsible manner.

Clean coal works. It’s a win-win for everyone determined to fortify the nation’s coal industry and benefit the environment. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration and Congress must work together for clean coal to fulfill its promise.  Let’s face the facts. A clean-energy world is impossible without clean, low-carbon coal.

Space served in the House from 007 to 2011. He is a principal for Vorys Advisors LLC, a wholly owned affiliate of the law firm, Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP in Ohio and a director of the CoalBlue Project, a nationwide coalition of Democratic leaders dedicated to a vibrant economy and a healthy environment.