We need energy technology, not ideology
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Let's keep burning coal; after all, it is a "way of life," therefore we must continue. No, wait: Let's eliminate fossil fuels altogether right now and make the world a better place.

These two perspectives could not be more opposite, and yet both are the same. They are uninformed. We are not using coal the way we were even 30 years ago and have advanced power production efficiency enormously — but we are still emitting carbon dioxide. Can we simply eliminate carbon dioxide overnight and declare war on energy affordability and security? We can't do that and be truly responsible to people that require affordable energy. Our world does require us to face carbon dioxide emissions as a threat to our global climate, and yet both sides of the argument are misguided about the facts and how to address the future. There is technology that can be deployed and solve problems, but we're too busy arguing without the facts and wallowing in ideology.


The U.S. has over 600 coal-fired power plants today, providing nearly 40 percent of our nation's electricity. We've closed 150 plants over the past two years as the natural gas miracle of supply and affordability has swept our country and enabled the transformation. Globally, however, Europe's coal growth is nearly 20 percent year over year and there are nearly 800 new coal-fired power plants planned in China and India alone. Coal is by no means dead; it is alive and growing. Is this because these societies "love" coal? Of course not! These countries are driven by the needs of their demanding and growing populations as they strive to escape energy poverty. Any society that does not have energy seeks to gain access through the most affordable means, and it changes their lives. If a society is blessed with available energy that is secure, then there is a clear responsibility to produce and provide that energy in an affordable and environmentally responsible manner. It is a time-honored fact that energy sustainability (secure, affordable and environmentally responsible) can only be accomplished through transformative technology advancements.

The U.S. is blessed with energy abundance and we take it for granted. We judge the choices and behaviors of others in the world far less fortunate. We could shut down every coal-fired power plant in our country tomorrow and impact the global carbon dioxide footprint by a whopping 2 percent — and there are those who would declare victory. This "victory" would increase the average cost to U.S. ratepayers by nearly two times in certain geographies, and that is at today's very low natural gas costs, so imagine the impact with more expensive gas! We have been able to shut down old, inefficient coal because of natural gas — not through a significant deployment of renewables. But natural-gas-fired power emits carbon dioxide as well, and is that really okay? Or is it simply that we wish to demonize coal and ignore that environmental reality to create a convenient, easy-to-identify enemy?

A recent New York Times article stated that the rooftop solar expansion in Hawaii is the template for our global future. The article fails to address the cost to the average ratepayer in Hawaii (the ones who do not have government-subsidized solar panels on their individual beach-view family homes). The average people that rely on power produced from the utility will be required to pay more to support such a special interest set of customers because those "special" customers will also demand a system that provides supply to "everyone" 24/7. Such a program benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Actually, it would be great if we were all living in an island paradise, receiving subsidized power and consuming less energy than the average U.S. citizen not living in such a temperate climate. I can't imagine any of us who would not fully embrace a future with no fossil fuels, zero emissions and with the same affordability and reliability of energy as we have today. Great imagination with zero reality is not a sustainable formula. If we want it all, then we can achieve it, but it takes technology investment and we need to get on with that now.

What technology can provide a real bridge for our real world? A technology that enables energy security and affordability and environmental responsibility can be deployed. It is carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS). Capture the carbon dioxide from the emissions of fossil-fired power plants before it enters the earth's atmosphere, utilize the carbon dioxide (it is a gas, not a poison; we drink it every day in carbonated beverages) and then safely and permanently store it in geological formations. The carbon dioxide capture technology we deploy today can be transformed over the next 10 years to be 50 percent more cost-effective than today's options. This was the Department of Energy (DOE) road map three years ago before the administration began to defund the Office of Fossil Technology. (Sadly, the support from the administration continues to lessen, but the House and Senate have recently begun to debate the shortfall and address the need.)

The carbon dioxide can be utilized to make chemicals and support the food industry, and most importantly, can be used in enhanced oil recovery or to enable fracking without water! It accomplishes energy productivity and enables affordability and produces an environmentally advanced solution by actually eliminating carbon dioxide emissions. The International Energy Agency has already published numerous reports stating that achievement of carbon dioxide emissions targets "requires" capturing the carbon dioxide from fossil usage. This is not a subsidy for oil and gas industries; it is a sensible way to promote environmental technology. To not promote and catalyze deployment of CCUS is to be disingenuous to any real carbon dioxide emissions environmental effort.

So why do both sides keep fighting? Industry claims that CCUS would make coal and fossil fuels too expensive and that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the demon. That's too simple and unimaginative. Emitting carbon dioxide is not sustainable. But just as misguided is that some environmentalists would proclaim that the CCUS technology is a "waste of taxpayer money" and simply perpetuates our continued reliance on fossil fuels. (Let us not debate continued wasteful government subsidies of technologies well past development such as wind, solar or even the renewable ethanol mandate that do not make our energy more secure, affordable or responsible.) As a society, we cannot make the transition to a fossil-less society overnight as the International Energy Agency projects that 80 percent of the world's energy will still be produced by fossil in 2050. So we must make fossil fuels more environmentally responsible.

So politics and arguments have not provided any leadership to date. What we need is advanced transformative technology. There are leading nongovernmental organizations, such as the Clean Air Task Force, that see CCUS as a solution and embrace reality. Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiCongress should reject H.R. 1619's dangerous anywhere, any place casino precedent Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks MORE (R-Alaska) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems press drillers over methane leaks Overnight Health Care — Presented by March of Dimes — Abortion access for 65M women at stake Joe Manchin should embrace paid leave — now MORE (D-W.Va.) heard from me about CCUS at my Senate Energy Committee confirmation hearing in 2012 that "CCUS was the most important technology DOE had to develop and realize if we were serious about CO2 and energy security." To make this bipartisan is not to be a bad or good party member — it's called leadership and we need it. It has not been coming from the EPA or the administration. Make an energy policy that promotes security, ensures affordability and is environmentally responsible. Drive for harmony and not opposition.

We are going to be consuming fossil fuels for the next 50 to 100 years, so the question is not if, it's how! We need what technology can deliver, and ideology cannot. Let's get busy and get real.

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.