Coal industry presses for changes in climate bill

Proposed federal climate legislation doesn't do enough to help the coal industry control its emissions of greenhouse gases, lobbyists urged two key senators yesterday.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) heard from utility executives and independent analysts that legislation the House passed last month, which is now awaiting Senate action, does not ensure that technology will be ready in time to capture carbon dioxide from coal plants.

Neither lawmaker is considered a likely swing vote on the overall climate bill. According to an E&E analysis, Voinovich is considered a "probably no" vote, while Carper is counted as a "yes." But with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee putting off a vote on the measure until September, coal lobbyists are hoping to convince lawmakers to make key changes to language on carbon capture and storage, or CCS.

Carper, for one, was noncommittal.

"I need to better understand that language and to hear, frankly, from more folks," he said when asked if he would support a bill without additional changes for coal. Carper and Voinovich, both EPW Committee members, organized the briefing to hear ideas on ways to tweak the House measure sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.).


The roundtable speakers included executives from utilities, energy companies, the Energy Department and the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit group. They made recommendations ranging from development of new regulations governing stored gas to tweaks in the timeline for emission cuts.

Reduce the emissions targets, coal execs say

"We've got to get the details of the financial incentives right," said Joe Chaisson, technical director of the Clean Air Task Force.

He said there is enough money in the bill to deploy all the different categories of CCS technology working their way to the commercial stage. His organization is concerned, however, about the funding for potential pipelines ferrying captured captured greenhouse gases from power plants to storage sites.

He suggested that a Senate bill boost dollars for construction of such pipelines and establish a new entity to oversee their infrastructure. The labyrinth needed to carry captured gas could require 23,000 miles of construction or more (ClimateWire, Nov. 18, 2008).

As they have before, pro-coal executives expressed concern about the bill's call for a 17 percent cut in emissions from 2005 levels by 2020.

"While carbon capture and sequestration technologies might be commercially viable by 2020, it will not be deployed with sufficience to avoid serious impacts on electricity prices," said Steve Winberg, vice president of research and development at Consol Energy.

Ben Yamagata, executive director of the Coal Utilization Research Council, said a Waxman-Markey provision providing "bonus allowances" to energy producers to defray the costs of up to 72 gigawatts of the yet-to-be-commercialized technology leaves too much discretion and flexibility to U.S. EPA to oversee the program.

"Here's the problem: The power plant owners and operators who are going to use this new technology have no certainty that those allowances promised will actually be forthcoming," he said.

'The right place to split the baby'

The senators sympathetic to coal are considered critical to Senate passage of the bill. The coal lobby also is one of the best-funded on Capitol Hill. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, for example, ranked first among spenders on climate-specific lobbyists in 2008, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Democrats supporting the bill face a delicate balancing act in trying to find votes from their right flank while also keeping the environmental community on board. Much of that community stands behind the bill, but many of its members have expressed worries about the House bill's existing concessions to the coal industry and current calls for changes in the 2020 emissions target.

This week, House leaders who supported the Waxman-Markey plan met with moderates in the Senate. In a recent interview, one of the House liaisons, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said he suggested a 14 percent cut by 2020 as an option in meetings with senators to build compromise. That percentage was promoted by the Obama administration initially, but was raised to 17 percent in the House.

Asked whether he could accept a less stringent emissions target, Carper said that "if you have one set of players from the environmental community that says it's not agressive enough and you have another group of coal folks saying it's too aggressive, maybe 17 [percent] is the right place to split the baby."

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