Call it a China Syndrome for the age of global warming.
With Congress crafting energy and climate legislation, disparate lobbyists are urging lawmakers to think about China and other developing countries as reasons to develop power plants that capture coal's carbon emissions. If the United States succeeds in building commercially viable coal plants, lobbyists and some independent experts argue, it could export the technology to countries that are building traditional power plants at a rapid clip.
"China burns twice as much coal as we do," said Howard Herzog, principal research engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative. "If there's not a way for China to clean up its coal emissions, it almost doesn't matter what anybody else does in the long term."
Technology companies, think tanks and environmental groups are among those making the argument linking carbon-capture research and development and China. Coal and utilities companies want government to help develop commercial-scale carbon capture technology. But when they talk to lawmakers, they focus mostly on coal's abundance as a domestic resource and how shrinking its use would affect U.S. jobs.
The lobbying is growing more intense as others criticize any taxpayer funding for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) research and question whether developing countries would pay the expected added costs.
The China pitch is aimed at uniting lawmakers behind a proposed cap on carbon emissions. It helps grab lawmakers who hesitate to support coal but fear its ongoing use in China and India, lobbyists said. It is a carrot for lawmakers from coal states who bristle at efforts to shrink coal use. And it appeals to lawmakers interested in technology and the idea of exporting U.S. breakthroughs.
"We understand that coal's going to be part of the energy mix for a long time," said Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at Center for American Progress, the progressive group founded by former President Clinton's chief of staff, John Podesta. "Politically, you can't pass legislation without support from coal states."
"You can't," he added, "get from here to there."
Support for carbon capture and sequestration is the bridge between the two sides, Weiss said.
'Universal fig leaf'
Although they focus more on U.S. need, lawmakers have talked about the international implications when they push for development of coal plants with carbon sequestration.
"We should launch another mini-Manhattan Project and reserve a Nobel Prize for the scientist who can get rid of the carbon from existing coal plants, because coal provides half our energy," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in an April floor statement. "We have not figured out what to do about carbon. If we did, India would also do it, China would also do it, the rest of the world would do it, and we could have low-cost energy."
Lawmakers argue, as well, that it is important to develop the technology at commercial scale instead of having another country do it first.
"Congressman Markey has said several times that he's very worried about losing a clean-energy race to China, and to the rest of the world," said Eben Burnham-Snyder, spokesman for the House Select Committee on Climate Change, chaired by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "He thinks it's vital that we move forward on CCS, but also on wind, also on solar, on all these technologies that we can export to China."
The development of CCS technology appeals to many lawmakers who answer to conflicting constituencies.
"Coal is an important part of the full range of energy sources available to us here at home and abroad," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee member whose state has both coal and zealous environmental activists. "That's one of the reasons I've long supported research to develop a viable and economically feasible way to capture carbon produced from burning coal."
The idea of developing CCS is politically appealing, said Kenneth Green, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
"It's the universal fig leaf. For people who want to say they're not against coal when they really are, they hold up CCS. If CCS works, then coal is fine," Green said. "If you are a coal supporter, it lets you say to your coal people, 'I know you're going to get hit by cap and trade, but we're going to give you CCS. It's going to protect you, more or less.'"
The stimulus law includes $3.4 billion for development of CCS technology. Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Friday announced how $2.4 billion of that will be spent. Included in the allocation is $1.52 billion for projects to capture and store carbon from industrial sources that could include power plants, cement plants and manufacturing. From that same $1.52 billion the Energy Department will fund technologies that reuse captured carbon, such as technology to turn it into food for algae.
Carbon capture and sequestration likely is eight to 10 years away from "significant" commercial deployment at coal-fired power plants, Chu said.
Various estimates put the cost of electricity generated by a CCS-enabled coal plant at 40 percent or more higher than the current price of coal-generated power. The only way that becomes viable is by making carbon very expensive to burn, such as through a cap-and-trade policy or carbon tax, several analysts said.
There also are questions about where the carbon would be stored and who would assume liability for leakage or any other problem. A new bill from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) seeks to answer one of those questions by having the government assume that liability from a power plant after it has been in operation at least 10 years.
Some analysts find the arguments about CCS and developing nations flawed. The plants would be very costly, and developing countries probably would be disinclined to spend the money, said Jerry Taylor, senior fellow and energy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute.
"If the Chinese aren't willing to pay the costs today or tomorrow, what good would it be to hand over blueprints for technology that won't ever be deployed?" Taylor said.
But MIT's Herzog asks, "So what's the alternative? People think it's more realistic they're just not going to burn coal? If we have this technology, we'd be in a better position."
China is pursuing some CCS. There are two test projects under way, one a partnership between China and the United Kingdom. China also is building more efficient coal plants, with the newest ones as efficient as those in the United States, Herzog said.
But the Chinese focus is not on carbon capture and storage, said Jeanne Ng, director of group environmental affairs with CLP Holdings Ltd., an Asian energy firm.
"China will continue to build new, more efficient ... coal plants and shut down old ones in the short to medium term regardless of what the U.S. or any other country in the developed world does," Ng said.
"In the spirit of doing its part to understand more about CCS, China will develop at least one CCS project," Ng added, referring to GreenGen in Tianjin. "However, unless CCS can prove to be commercially viable, that may end up being the only one for a while."
In terms of reducing carbon, "in a country that still urgently needs more energy supply, rather than focus on the time- and money-consuming activity of developing CCS, they would probably prefer to focus on developing renewables such as hydro, wind and solar, which not only provides immediate energy supply expansion but also strengthens their energy independence," Ng said.
But China is not likely to pass any accompanying carbon caps any time soon, she said.
"They ask why should they have such caps when much of their population still does not have access to energy and a considerable amount of energy that is currently being used is to produce goods for developed countries like the U.S.," Ng said.
The global issue makes action on coal imperative, said George Peridas, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which like the Center for American Progress is advocating for CCS development combined with a carbon cap.
China, Peridas said, is adding one to two coal-fired plants to its power grid every month.
"It's simply incompatible with climate stabilization," Peridas said.
Carbon capture and sequestration "is not our favorite greenhouse gas reduction solution, but we think it has an important role to play and should be part of the mix," Peridas said. "We need to reduce emissions and reduce them fast."
There is not a conflict between backing development of carbon-sequestered coal and backing renewable energy, Peridas said. While there are limited federal resources, government money for research and development is not what will make the technologies succeed or fail, he said.
A government policy capping carbon will drive private dollars into both renewables and CCS, he said.
While there is widespread concern over coal use in China and India, the idea of developing CCS because those countries also could use it is not a universally popular notion among environmentalists.
"Why do we want to encourage them to use coal?" said Erich Pica, Friends of the Earth's director of domestic policy. It is "fairly defeatist," he added, to assume China, India and other countries could not move to clean-energy sources.
"Promoting CCS as the answer, it just sort of pushes the day of reckoning for fossil fuels down the line," Pica said. "Coal, from the mining of coal to the burning of coal, is a very dirty fuel."
While others argue that renewable sources cannot be developed quickly enough to meet the world's energy needs, Pica argues that "CCS is not going to come on line fast enough, nor is it going to be deployed fast enough to really make a difference."
The coal industry is politically powerful, Pica said, and right now is using President Obama's own words to push for development of cleaner coal technology.
"This is America. We figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 years. You can't tell me we can't figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work," Obama said during a rally in last year's presidential campaign.
Said Pica: "We think the president's wrong on this one. A cleaner energy economy means we have to switch off fossil fuels, period. That means no new coal plants and no coal plants with CCS."
Companies pushing solutions
For companies developing CCS technologies, arguments about China and other developing country are helpful. And they sense Congress is ready to act.
Alstom, a France-based company working on carbon capture technology, relocated its U.S. headquarters to Washington, D.C., in the last six months "as a signal to both policymakers and customers that we were really interested in engaging in the public policy process," said Ruth Smith, the company's vice president of government affairs.
Alstom has a CCS demonstration project in Wisconsin and others in Poland, Canada, Sweden, Norway and France. The company's technology uses chemical reactions to remove carbon from flue gas. Coal would need to be changed from the pulverized rock form now used at coal plants into a gas before that technology could be used.
New Hampshire-based Powerspan Corp. is among those taking the global view as it lobbies on the "clean coal" technology issue. The company has said it has a carbon capture technology that could be used at existing coal plants.
"We're trying to be the counterargument to 'Clean coal doesn't really exist,'" said Frank Alix, CEO of Powerspan Corp., referencing the advertising campaign attacking the concept of "clean coal."
"To say it isn't out there at a commercial level is a true statement," Alix said. But the technology is available, he said.
"To say we're not ready," Alix added, "that isn't true."
A power company is not going to install $200 million to $300 million worth of equipment, Alix said, without a financial incentive. A government policy capping carbon emissions and setting a price on amounts over that cap would create the needed incentive, he said.
The company, which began lobbying on the carbon capture issue in 2006, talks to lawmakers about China, India and developing countries. Powerspan, meanwhile, sees business openings both domestically and internationally. It has established partnerships with Asian consultants and has its own employees working in Asia.
"The economic stakes are high," Alix said.