Capitol Hill loves carbon storage technology. But are lawmakers overlooking risks?

The doctors – John Fogarty of the University of New Mexico and Michael McCally of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine – cite asphyxiation risks from accidental large-scale releases.

“The geologic security or permanence of underground carbon dioxide storage over time also has not been well studied,” they write. They also cite potential risks to water supplies.

Carbon storage enjoys wide support among lawmakers from coal-producing states and will likely play a major role in any climate and energy legislation that emerges from Capitol Hill.

Coal accounts for half of U.S. power generation and the country enjoys abundant coal supplies. It is also a major source of power in fast-growing industrial powers including China.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has called support for low-emissions coal technologies vital, arguing that even if the U.S. were to move away from use of coal, other nations will continue using the resource.

Chu is hopeful that widespread CCS deployment can begin in eight to 10 years. The recent stimulus law steered $3.4 billion into CCS, and pending Capitol Hill plans would expand support substantially.

The climate bill approved in the House in June includes a 10-year, $10 billion CCS program that utilities would establish, as well as tens of billions of dollars in other support including distribution of valuable federal emissions allowances for power projects that use CCS. Draft Senate plans also call for similar or even increased support.

The two doctors say that study of CCS by the Institute of Medicine – which is part if the National Academy of Sciences – should occur before new coal-fired power plants are approved, and also call for more congressional review.

The issues have already received some congressional attention, however. The climate bill approved by the House, for instance, requires new EPA rules to protect human health and the environment by minimizing the risk of releases of stored carbon.

But Frank O’Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said a more careful look is in order amid unknown risks. “We have been sold so far on the notion that CCS is a silver bullet and this study ought to make us step back and take a deep breath before we plunge ahead,” he said.

“Congress has it on the radar screen. The question is, is it bright enough, or is it something that political considerations are going to just overwhelm?” he adds.