Donald Trump’s administration must keep the promises made on clean coal

A number of new coal-powered energy plants equipped with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology are due to come online across the U.S. over the coming weeks, much to the ire of green activists. CCS technology captures up to 90% of carbon dioxide emissions created when fossil fuels are burned to generate electricity. Campaigners argue this type of technology could prolong global reliance on fossil fuels at a time when governments should be investing in clean, renewable sources of energy.

In fact, environmentalists railing against climate change mitigation technology appear to be oblivious to the fact that fossil fuels will make up a significant proportion of America’s energy mix for the foreseeable future. The hard reality is that while renewables are growing and becoming more cost-effective, their reliance upon capricious natural phenomena to generate energy (such as the wind blowing or the sun shining) makes them an unreliable safeguard for America’s energy security.


Research published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) highlighted the unreliability of renewable sources of energy, recommending a mix between renewables and “fast-reacting fossil technologies” as the best way governments can move forward. The study found that installing 1MW of renewable capacity leads to a further 1.12 MW of fossil fuel technology coming online.

No matter how quickly environmentally-progressive politicians would like to see renewables take over from fossil fuels, the fact remains that coal plants are still responsible for a third of global energy production, making it vital that CCS is properly explored.

The opening of new clean coal plants built by Petra Nova in Texas and Southern Co. in Mississippi over the next few weeks could be pivotal in convincing Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE’s incoming administration of the benefits of CCS, and play a key role in persuading his Cabinet to honor promises he made on the campaign trail to back this type of technology. Trump vowed to put an end to restrictions limiting jobs in the coal and shale gas industries during his first 100 days in office, hinting that “clean coal” could play a role in enabling him to do so.

And despite what some claim, America’s current energy mix is not a result of market forces or of natural selection - it has been created by market distortions brought about by the introduction of often politically-motivated subsidies. Outgoing President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day RNC targets McAuliffe, Biden campaign event with mobile billboard The real reason Biden is going to the COP26 climate summit MORE stuck to his 2008 promise of bankrupting anyone wanting to build coal plants and championed instead natural gas and renewables through a complex web of subsidies and favorable regulations.

Others, who recognize that CCS is a valuable technology but criticize it on cost grounds suffer from a myopic view of just how important federal and state subsidies have been to boosting the renewable sector. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), 72% of the Department of Energy’s subsidy budget goes to renewables - amounting to $11.6 billion in 2013 alone. In 2015, Bloomberg New Energy Finance revealed that federal subsidies provided wind and solar developers with as much as $24 billion between 2008 and 2014, leading to a 12-fold increase in installed capacity over the past decade, helping to lower costs by at least 10% each year.

Similarly, Elon Musk’s renewable empire has benefited from $4.9 billion in governmental support, with New York state giving SolarCity $750 million for its factory and Nevada incentivizing Tesla with $1.3 billion to build its famed battery factory there. With the right political will, CCS technologies can very well create new high tech jobs while also providing job security to the 182,700 people working in the mining industry.

The argument that carbon capture technology is too expensive is also a complete red herring, which roundly neglects to acknowledge how quickly production costs would fall thanks to economies of scale. For example, since the 1970s, solar energy prices have fallen from $76/watt to $0.57/watt since the 1970s.

If a similar feat could be achieved by the Trump administration with CCS, climate change mitigation technology could greatly reduce carbon emissions around the world.

And it’s not just the U.S. that’s having a change of heart when it comes to CCS. A recent Anglo-Indian project is already developing CCS technology, promising to capture carbon emissions produced during the electricity production process for just $30 per ton, without any government subsidies. This is much lower than the $120-140 typically achieved in the global power sector. With 300 million people lacking access to electricity, Indian demand for coal is expected to rise by over 50% by 2027. Unlike the Obama administration, India is looking to upgrade its coal plants by converting them into modern super critical plants, which produce more power from less coal and with fewer CO2 emissions.

The use of new technologies such as CCS and fast-reacting fossil fuels has the potential to drastically cut emissions in countries that are years away from developing renewable energy sources. The case for investing in CCS and similar climate change mitigation technology is clear. Far from prolonging the world’s dependence on fossil fuels as some maintain, emboldening CCS could be the main tool in Trump’s toolkit to appease coal miners in Virginia while also honoring America’s climate change commitments. 

Patrick Armstead is a legal adviser specializing in labor issues.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.