After having declared themselves victims of the Obama administration's War on Coal, coal interests across the nation are undoubtedly breathing sighs of relief after winning the recent round of political skirmishes in Congress. However, even with these victories in hand, it is difficult to imagine that the coal industry will rebound any time soon from its recent trends of declining profitability and market value. With the decade-long increase in cheap natural gas and cost-competitive solar and wind energy, these declining trends for the industry began long before the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) new rulings on existing and future power plant emissions. The EPA's rulings only confirm the inevitable — dirty coal-fired power generation in the U.S. is on its way out.
Did this process have to become so painful and divisive? If these coal companies had invested in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology during the past decade instead of only gambling on a clean-coal advertising campaign, then might they have eased their transition toward a true clean-energy future? Answers to these two questions are complicated and don't lend themselves to simple answers. However, by raising them, we can begin to think about their implications for the future of the entire energy industry.
In a recent op-ed in The Hill, it was pointed out that society is on a collision course with dangerous climate change and must attain carbon neutrality by mid-century or be prepared to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during subsequent decades. The climate science tells us that, without some form of CCS, approximately 80 percent of the world's known fossil fuel reserves are unburnable and must remain in the ground if society is to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change. Furthermore, experts have estimated that without an economic form of CCS, the cost of avoiding the most dangerous impacts of climate change may be more than tripled.
Unfortunately, the largest companies in the energy industry have concluded that policymakers are unlikely to act quickly enough to strand their current fossil fuel assets or make it unprofitable for them to continue exploring for new reserves. The oil and gas sector, in particular, is gambling on a business-as-usual model that projects out to a roughly $14 trillion investment in new reserves by 2035. This investment would correspond to a staggering amount of wasted capital should policymakers decide that these reserves cannot be burned.
How might the industry better invest its vast wealth of capital to ease the transition to a clean-energy future? One obvious example would be the rapid international deployment of CCS technologies at large scale for power generation from coal and natural gas. Despite industry's claims that affordable CCS technologies do not exist, this is simply not the case. Two bulk fractionation carbon dioxide processing technologies, gas separation membranes and cryogenic separation, have each been used by the industry in the Permian Basin area of West Texas for enhanced oil recovery operations since 1983. These technologies have already been proven at large scale. For example, 11 enhanced oil recovery plants recycle around 20 million tons of carbon dioxide per year using gas separation membranes. With respect to cryogenic separation, it has been used to process more than 80 million tons of carbon dioxide on a cumulative basis, with Occidental Petroleum's Wasson Denver Unit plant alone processing around 5 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. These two technologies can be combined to potentially capture carbon dioxide from a power plant for $25 to $45 per ton — significantly less expensive than the amine-based absorption technologies that have been tested by the industry and consistently underperformed. Moreover, within this hybrid membrane-cryogenic carbon dioxide capture framework, sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions can each be co-captured at a very small fraction of the cost for capturing them separately from coal-fired power plant emissions. When these cost savings are properly credited, the net carbon dioxide capture cost will decline markedly.
Once captured, the carbon dioxide can be stored underground in geological repositories, which comes at a cost, or directly utilized in the manufacture of certain chemical products, which generate revenue. Carbon dioxide is also an important feedstock in the production of algae and their associated products. Utilizing captured fossil carbon dioxide in algal biofuel production has little climate mitigation benefit as it is subsequently released to the atmosphere when the fuel is burned. However, utilizing captured fossil carbon dioxide to produce long-lived algal biopetroleum products, such as plastics, can be a profitable and effective carbon storage strategy.
During the 21st century, the age of fossil fuels will come to an end. For the energy industry as a whole, the War on Fossil Fuels would best become a series of political battles left unfought. While holding actions may be successful in the short term, this war can only lead to inevitable defeat. To win the War on Fossil Fuels, the energy industry must come up with an alternative business model that can sustain its long-term profitability while safeguarding the planet's habitability.
Greene is a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University. Willson is the president of Stanbridge Capital, which serves as a consultant or as a principal in applying proven oil and gas technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a low cost. He has co-authored several technical papers on this subject and collaborates internationally with academic institutions and industry.