Legislators seek role for coal in carbon-constrained world

The future of a global warming bill rests largely on the question of what to do about coal.

As a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, coal is no longer king in a Congress run by members driven to pass a climate change bill. But coal still enjoys broad support from lawmakers whose constituents rely on the fuel to run their refrigerators or turn on the air conditioning.

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Abundant and relatively inexpensive, coal accounts for about 50 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, as well as 40 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions.

“As we seek to reduce both domestic and global greenhouse gas emissions, addressing the use of coal will be at the center of our efforts in the years to come,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) at a hearing that examined the question of coal on Tuesday.

Ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas) called the question of what to do with coal “one of the most important ones, if not the most important one” facing Congress as it crafts climate change legislation.

It remains a question with few easy answers.

Sequestering carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants — the process that produces “clean coal” — remains years away from broad deployment because right now the process is prohibitively expensive, witnesses said at the hearing.

The Energy and Commerce Energy and Environment subcommittee reviewed the future of coal in a two-plus hour hearing on Tuesday.

Although Democrats and Republicans broadly agreed that Congress should spend billions of dollars more, in addition to $3.4 billion in an economic stimulus package for clean coal development, to support carbon dioxide capture and storage, they disagreed on whether a carbon cap was needed as an extra incentive.

Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said a climate change bill would be the stick and “robust financial incentives” would be the carrot to push carbon capture technologies to full-scale development. A cap would require utilities to reduce their emissions or face massive fines.

“To create jobs and unleash the private sector’s vast resources and ingenuity, we need regulatory drivers and strong incentives,” Markey said.

He provided a few statistics to show why the issue of coal was so central to addressing global warming. As many as 3,000 coal plants are projected to be built by 2030. The plants themselves would increase global emissions by 30 percent, Markey said.

And even if the United States abandoned coal entirely, most experts believe that China, India and a host of developing countries would not, so overall global carbon emissions would continue to rise.

The necessary reduction in carbon emissions cannot be “achieved unless we act quickly to control coal-fired power plants,” Markey said.

Democrats say carbon sequestration technologies developed by the United States could be a major new export, creating thousands of “green jobs.”

But Michigan Rep. Fred Upton (R), the subcommittee ranking member, said coal has a “target on its back” from climate change legislation.

“Like it or not, without coal the United States would hemorrhage millions of jobs,” Upton said.

The technology seen as the answer to the problem of coal emissions, carbon sequestration, is already in use by oil companies that inject carbon into the ground to force oil back up. But the process is now prohibitively expensive for most coal-fired utilities.

David Crane, president and CEO of NRG Energy, said his company was in the process of “decarbonizing” its generation systems by building wind, solar and nuclear facilities.

“Noticeably absent from the list is clean coal,” Crane noted. Costs and regulatory uncertainly led his company to abandon a project to build a carbon sequestration plant in New York.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t know how to do it, it was just too expensive,” Crane said.

Crane said he was confident that within the next three decades, a solution to carbon emissions will be found. But he was not confident carbon sequestration technologies or something similar would be ready within the next decade.

One problem with carbon sequestration is that the process itself siphons off gobs of electricity from the power plant, reducing its efficiency and raising the costs. Crane said he thought carbon sequestration would double the cost to produce electricity from coal. That, Republicans said, would create a wealth transfer from states dependent on coal to states on the coast that rely more on nuclear or hydropower to produce electricity.

Several members expressed support for a bill to be introduced by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), which would create a dedicated fund to help industry develop carbon capture technologies. He said the bill, which is also supported by Republicans like Barton, would spend $1 billion a year for 10 years developing and deploying the technologies.

Jeffrey Young contributed to this article.

* The original version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) that questioned the need to move forward on a climate change given the poor economy. Boucher supports efforts to cap carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.