Carbon Dioxide Technology Is Key to Success

Posted April 20, 2008 at 11:00pm

Scientific opinion regarding the primary cause of global climate change is now deeply solidified — temperatures are rising, and human activity is the major contributor to the temperature increases. Congress must now act to address the challenge that climate change poses.

In the near future, the subcommittee I chair will advance for consideration by the House a mandatory control program for greenhouse gases. It will rely on the time-tested cap-and-trade methodology that we employed successfully in 1990 to control sulfur dioxide emissions. My goal in drafting the measure will be to protect

both the environment and the domestic economy. Legislation achieving this necessary balance will be difficult to craft, but it can be done.

There are certain components that will be critical to the formation of the program. It must be mandatory, and it must be economy-wide. It must have a bipartisan foundation and be industry-supported, similar to each of the preceding major clean air enactments, all of which passed both chambers with large bipartisan majorities. Each CO2-emitting sector must contribute to the solution, and we must ensure that each sector has the tools necessary to do so.

Certain realities must be acknowledged. Our nation’s primary source of electricity is our most abundant natural resource — coal. It accounts for 51 percent of electricity generation, with the Department of Energy estimating that coal use will grow to 57 percent in 2030. For the stability of our economy, coal must continue to be the major component of our fuel mix.

Coal is by far the least expensive fuel and we have a 250-year reserve of it in the U.S., the largest of any nation. We have no readily available fuel alternatives. Nuclear plants are being proposed but take years to build. Renewables are cost competitive only in select parts of the country that have an abundance of wind or solar resources. Natural gas is the next least expensive fuel, but we are already importing a significant portion of our daily consumption. If the utilities now burning coal switch to natural gas, the economy would be deeply dislocated. Prices would soar. Gas-dependent industries would suffer, and the 58 percent of homes in America heated with natural gas would experience severe financial distress. This deep economic harm can and must be avoided.

The key to our ability to impose carbon constraints without a radical and economically damaging change in the existing fuel mix is to hasten the development of CO2-capture-and-sequestration technologies.

CO2-capture technologies, such as integrated gasification combined cycle, oxygen-based combustion and retrofits for existing coal-fired plants using chilled ammonia, will soon enter the commercial market. These technologies for CO2 separation will be available in a few years. The technology challenge will be the identification of reliable and available storage caverns for CO2 sequestration. Sites must be thoroughly mapped, pressurized with CO2 and monitored for years to ensure their integrity before they can be certified for commercial use. Under current estimates, that work will not be completed until approximately 2025.

While the injection of carbon dioxide for enhanced oil and gas recovery has occurred for some time, oil and gas fields can accommodate only a small fraction of the billions of tons of CO2 that a cap-and-trade program will necessitate. Many other forms of storage media in diverse locations around the nation must be extensively evaluated, and legal issues surrounding sequestration must be resolved. Last year, a Department of Energy study reported that the U.S. has sufficient geological reserves to accommodate the injection of 900 years of carbon dioxide emissions. But preparing the storage sites will be expensive and will take time.

The recent MIT study “The Future of Coal” recommends federal government expenditures of approximately $460 million annually over about the next 10 years in order to bring carbon-capture-and-storage technologies to commercial use. Other estimates of the amount required range upward of $10 billion over the next decade. Appropriations would have to exceed current sums by orders of magnitude to meet these estimates. The preservation of national economic stability requires that any mandatory control program be accompanied by a corresponding financial commitment by government to this technical challenge.

In order to be digestible by our economy, the schedule for emissions reductions should impose the most severe reduction requirements beginning at the time CO2-capture-and-sequestration technologies become widely commercially available. However, significant reductions can be achieved even by coal-burning entities in the early years of the program while the sequestration technologies are being developed. By ensuring that our program includes access to widely available credit offsets, such as domestic agricultural CO2 sinks and verifiable international offsets from tropical rainforest protection, we can offer an affordable means by which emission reductions can be required and achieved in the near term.

In addition to investments in technology and the use of offsets to help facilitate near-term reductions, we must also ensure that the United States and the balance of the developed world are not alone in their efforts to solve this global problem. We must ensure that other nations — notably China and India — also institute greenhouse gas emission control programs or in reliable ways compensate for the CO2 emissions associated with items they export to the United States. Without developing nation participation, the imposition of controls by the United States could have a detrimental effect on our industries that are exposed to global trade.

Several interesting ideas have been proposed for ways in which we can use U.S. trade laws to ensure that our legislation will lead to international participation, such as tying emission credits to each item imported into the United States or establishing manufacturing performance standards for every product exported to our shores. Regardless of the specific approach, our program will contain a mechanism to ensure that we meet the dual goals of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions while protecting domestic entities that participate in energy intensive, globally competitive industries.

A number of other factors will be critical to the development of our program, and there are many details that will be developed as we craft our legislation. As the process moves forward, our goals will be to achieve the scientifically recommended emissions reductions of approximately 60 percent to 80 percent by 2050 while preventing economic disruption.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality.