Truth or consequences in energy policy, part I

This is the first installment in a three-part series. Part II is available here and part III is available here.

The climate and the environment; energy security and energy affordability. No topics are more relevant and impactful.

In this piece and two more to follow, I'll examine three simple questions and answers, much like the old television show "Truth or Consequences." 

  1. Clean coal technology: Is it possible? If so, how? Or should we simply eliminate coal?
  2. The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan (CPP): Can we afford to stop it? Can we afford to adopt it? Is it meaningful?
  3. Clean, accessible energy: What does Bill Gates's energy rallying cry require for success?

Let's begin with today's question: Is there any such thing as clean coal technology? How can it be achieved and what have we done so far? If you take climate change and carbon dioxide emissions seriously, it's no joke! The consequences of getting this wrong are enormous.

The first answer is yes, clean coal technology does exist and it is possible. In 1970, our country faced a need to double the amount of generated electricity to fuel our growth, and natural gas was not an option yet realized. Coal was the most abundant and affordable fuel and yet the environmental consequences of the day were recognized to be SOx (sulfur oxide), NOx (nitrogen oxide), mercury and suspended particulates (the four Ps), and they had to be curtailed. We took the challenge by investing in technology, and over the next 30 years, we doubled our electricity generated by coal and reduced the four Ps by 90 percent. Technology in its finest hour.

The public/private/governmental investment in coal technology research, deployment of advanced technologies, and systems and efficiency all contributed to this phenomena. Developing countries in the world today face those same energy-growth needs, and coal is the fuel that continues to grow 20 percent per year globally. Advanced technologies must be deployed globally to realize positive environmental impact.

Yet today, we face a fifth environmental challenge: carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Climate change is occurring. It's real. Carbon dioxide emissions are impacting our climate and arguing about it further only serves to take our eye off the ball. The actions we take must be sensible, impactful and effect real change.

This is where the debate and thoughtful thinking should be about how to address carbon dioxide emissions, but instead it devolves into choosing sides between either using coal or quitting coal. That is the wrong debate. It's not about the fuel; it’s about the emissions! The world will continue to increase coal use globally. How we use coal and what emissions result is the real question. Quitting coal is not an option for today or the foreseeable future, and in fact, many who suggest natural gas as the miracle replacement for coal ignore the fact that carbon dioxide is emitted from natural gas generation as well.

In his most recent annual letter, Gates notes that "the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 percent by 2050, and eliminate them entirely by the end of the century." I will discuss Gates's charge in an upcoming column, but this message is clear: We must take action on the emissions or there will be consequences. But how?

Wind, solar, renewables of all kinds, as well as nuclear, will all play a role and require massive investment and deployment for the rest of this century. But over the coming 50 plus years, the globally growing (20 percent per year) coal-fired power-generation emissions must be reduced.

The International Energy Agency has recently published the road map for climate and energy policies, and it clearly states there is no possible way to achieve long-term carbon dioxide emissions reductions and climate change without carbon dioxide capture and storage from existing coal and fossil-fueled power plants, much less any new investments in electric generation.

But would it not be great to just eliminate coal and gas-fired power? No, not really — not yet. Our world relies on energy, and our grandest global challenge is providing electricity to the 1 billion people living in energy poverty today and for the additional 2 billion people on our planet by the year 2050 who will double energy demand. We need all of the energy we can get, and it must be secure, abundant and affordable, so eliminating energy-supply options to the world is counterproductive as we must facilitate the transition, not burden it with a lack of affordable energy.

Carbon capture and storage of carbon dioxide is a program that the U.S. Department of Energy has been promoting for nearly 15 years. Recently, the global acceptance of the inevitable need for worldwide deployment has never been stronger. It is also now recognized that simply treating carbon dioxide as a "waste" is just that — a waste. Using the carbon dioxide for business purposes in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) is not only good for energy security and productivity, but also for the climate. We capture the carbon dioxide, prevent it from being emitted into the atmosphere, use it and then safely and permanently store it: carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS). We produce oil and gas while creating environmental benefit.

CCUS is no joke if one is serious about the environment. It is the pathway for fossil fuels to be responsibly used over the next 50 years as our society makes the transition to a less fossil-fuel-dependent future. Any carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere over these next 50 years will still be in the atmosphere at the end of this century. We must act now and not be deluded by wishful thinking that renewables are the sole answer. It's not even close.

When Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryJohn Kerry channels Yoda in tweetstorm John Kerry goes on tweetstorm as Senate eyes Iran legislation John Kerry's advice to Harvard grads: Learn Russian MORE was recently questioned by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) about coal, Kerry acknowledged that coal will be "an energy of choice due to affordability." He said, "I've always supported major efforts for clean coal technology investment, and we ought to be trying to lead on that. If we can discover how to do that, that would be superb."

So now, the truth or consequences test: True, coal will be an energy of choice due to affordability. But, unfortunately, Mr. Secretary, this administration has not always supported clean coal technology. I previously served in this same administration, when the Department of Energy (DOE) coal technology budgets to address carbon dioxide were slashed 40 percent per year for two years in a row. This year, the administration is actively working to defund $240 million more from CCUS efforts and "repurpose" those funds to renewables. Another 40 percent cut to the DOE fossil budget for research.

The consequences of pretending to be supportive are devastating. The U.S. has a CCUS program in the DOE, with key industry co-investors, and it can accomplish the "superb" you speak of. And yet, we are cutting the budget for it again?

Does that sound like leading to you? Me neither.

Globally, we are looked upon as leaders, but are we? Where I grew up in eastern Ohio and later in Pittsburgh, where many of my former colleagues at the National Energy Technology Laboratory reside today, we had a most appropriate response to talk that sounded phony: "Put your money where your mouth is."

So, Mr. Secretary and this administration, what is it? Do you really wish to lead technology change globally and truly impact the environment or would you rather go to the next Sierra Club meeting as a keynote speaker and pronounce a feel-good moment for zero tolerance of any future with coal or fossil fuels?

Let's stop the political pontification and embrace investing in technology. Let's put our money where our mouth is.

It surely won't come from environmental overreach policies that sound like the salvation but in fact are not. But that's the topic for the next column on the proposed Clean Power Plan that this administration has categorized as the "centerpiece to our climate plan ... reducing carbon emissions." Truth or consequences?

McConnell is executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University and a former assistant secretary of energy at the Department of Energy from 2011 to 2013.