Is Burying Carbon in the Ground the Answer to the Woes of Coal?

They call it “clean coal . ” They tell us that the pollution problem is “fixed” and the solution to the greenhouse gas implication is just around the corner.

They say, “Don't worry that burning coal releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other fuel source . We'll soon 'sequester' that stuff: we'll bury it in the ground.”

How soon?

Burying the carbon produced from the burning of coal, so called Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), isn't as simple as the coal advocates would have us think.

At the rate CCS technology is being developed, Richard Branson will have figured out how to send tourists to Moon before we see anyone storing significant amounts of carbon under our feet.

New Scientist magazine recently provided a good overview of CCS technology. It quotes a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study called The Future of Coal, which concludes that, “the first commercial CCS plant won't be on stream until 2030 at the earliest.”

Oil-giant Shell “doesn't foresee CCS being in widespread use until 2050.”

If it's going to take 30 years before we figure out how to capture carbon from coal effectively, wouldn't it make sense to move our energy generation away from coal to renewable source like wind and solar? After all, the world's best scientific organizations have all concluded that we have much less than 30 years to significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gas we are pumping into the atmosphere.

But in coal country - which is to say, the United States of America - the appetite for coal profits seems to be overwhelming what might otherwise be viewed as intelligent caution.

Consider the “Americans for Balanced Energy” (ABEC), an organization that has received $40 million from coal industry giants including Peabody Energy, Duke Energy, Arch Coal and CONSOL Energy Inc. You may have seen ABEC at work: their “clean coal” advertising blitz ran heavily on CNN during Democratic Presidential Debates and Democratic Primary coverage.

One of ABEC's ads highlights a CCS pilot project called “FutureGen,” something that was originally hailed by the US administration as the first commercial-scale pilot project that would capture and sequester carbon and answer our global warming woes.

Not surprisingly, ABEC's “clean coal” ads haven't been updated to report that the US Department of Energy pulled out of the FutureGen project in January after development estimates jumped from $800 million to $1.8 billion. So working CCS is still 40 years away, but the myth of CCS remains as a justification for building new coal-fired power plants plants today.

If the American public buys the CCS myth, hopefully Richard Branson will not only have figured out how to fly us to the moon, but to colonize it as well.


It would be wise to avoid the denier tactics of cherry-picking data and misrepresenting the opinions of experts.

We need every arrow in our solution quiver that we can find. Renewable energy must be encouraged by subsidies and supports, pushed with electrical generation Portfolio Standards and given urgent research status.

But that won't keep us from moving forward on other fronts simultaneously. Here a few comments by two of the MIT faculty who authored the report.

More are linked below. None support the conclusion you reach here. - [chairman] Moniz said, “There is an urgency to move forward with demonstrations of coal combustion/conversion plants (with) carbon dioxide capture and with large-scale, properly designed CO2 sequestration demonstrations. These coal plants should be focused on demonstrating commercial viability of commercial-scale integrated systems, not on being research platforms.”

And the government should “provide incentives for a number of different plants, since it is a public benefit to provide the demonstrated technology options for the future time,” Moniz said. [That is what the Bushies have done. Cancelled FutureGen and belatedly channelled those appropriations into funding multiple CCS projects]

Another author of the MIT study, Prof. Howard Herzog, told the Associated Press he is also worried about delays in the establishment of commercial carbon sequestration plants because of the upcoming presidential election. “I think we’re going to lose even more time because there’s a new administration that’s going to want to come in and reevaluate this,” he said.


Completely agree with the statements by the MIT prof’s you quote and it does not contradict my point. That being, that the construction of new coal plants is being justified by the hope of CCS technology that will most likely not come on line for another 50 years - I’ll be 84 by then!!

Let’s keep developing CCS technology, but let’s all be honest and admit that it will do nothing to effect greenhouse gas emissions emitted from the coal plants currently proposed for construction - and will most likely do nothing significant for a long, long time.  

I am glad to agree with the sense of all your statement, but believe the timeline is not so far off as you suggest.

Here is part of what Fred Pearce says in New Scientist:

“Unfortunately, few in the energy industry believe these deadlines are remotely achievable. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called The Future of Coal, published last year, suggests that the first commercial CCS plants won’t be on stream until 2030 at the earliest. Thomas Kuhn of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents most US power generators, half of whose fuel is coal, takes a similar line. In September, he told a House Select Committee that commercial deployment of CCS for emissions from large coal-burning power stations will require 25 years of R&D and cost about $20 billion.

The energy company Shell, though enthusiastic about the technology, doesn’t foresee CCS being in widespread use until 2050. Yet some governments appear oblivious to this. When Germany recently approved its new coal power stations, it stipulated that the plants must be compatible with any future carbon capture technology. The UK is likely to take the same approach if ministers, as expected, approve a new coal-fired station at Kingsnorth in Kent. However, these installations are likely to have reached the end of their useful lives before the technology arrives.”

I have read the MIT study in the past and looked at it again. Frankly, I don’t see what Pearce is alluding to. The two starting assumptions of the study are that climate change is real and that coal, for cost and availability reasons, will continue to be a major energy source. So it would be odd if they made all those recommendations knowing full well that their suggestions didn’t meet the necessary timeline for planetary action.

I cannot find anything on Mr. Kuhn’s testimony. Both others from industry have testified and they expect to have some technology developed and deployed by 2020.
Stu Dalton -

The latest Shell forecast only goes to 2025, so I think that statement may be from a 1990s version.

Every coal plant cancelled today is a blessing. But given the glaring lack of a plan for renewable baseload energy, we’re going to need something. And I think we must develop technology to help wean China and others off coal as well as clean up their act.
No course of action is risk free.

Ever notice the people who imagine windmills can replace fossil fuels, are the same ones who also don’t believe carbon sequestration works?

Then again, they also don’t think the Sun has anything to do with Global Warmification, and that taxation is an effective technique for controlling weather.

“they also don’t think the Sun has anything to do with Global Warmification”

Bigtime BS. Sun cycles and many other factors have *always* been acknowledged in the models. AGW is happening on top of those.

“that taxation is an effective technique for controlling weather”

Climate change has been in public discussion for, what, about two years now (and in scientific circles for thirty), and you still can’t differentiate weather and climate. Looks like some kind of learning disability there.

I wouldn’t count on Rob ever catching on, Hugh. He seems to have reached his level of incompetence.

As for the public discussion, I’m not particularly precocious, and I’ve been involved in climate change conversations at the popular level for much more than two years. I agree with your point, though. One would expect folks to have a basic grasp of the vocabulary by now. JohnnyB in particular seems to have trouble coping. Perhaps it’s time for an Idiot’s Guide to Climate Change. The Climate change: A guide for the perplexed in New Scientist seems to be over their heads.

With that out of my system, Jay has an excellent point, and one that contrarians are always ignoring, that the combination of a variety of technologies is going to be the way out of this mess. For years I have been hearing about proposals to create small, local hydro (as in, really water!)-powered generating stations where the conditions are right. An excellent example of this potential near here is the Rideau Canal, a World Heritage Site running between Ottawa and Kingston, Ontario. At one point the entire system was lined with productive mills (textile, grain, lumber, etc) using water power. Harnessing that same source now would power the whole corridor. Getting pockets of the grid onto their own systems would lighten the load on the main grid, reducing the need for coal plants and focusing more on places where small-scale local generating stations are not feasible.

Imagining that wind power alone, or that solar power alone, etc. is the solution is the uncreative approach of a very limited mind.

Fern Mackenzie

“Perhaps it’s time for an Idiot’s Guide to Climate Change.”

An idiot’s guide? What other kind would there be?

“and you still can’t differentiate weather and climate.”

Good catch, Hugh! I should have written: “taxation is an effective technique for controlling the climate.”

Yeah, that sounds so much less insane. Thanks for pointing that out, Hugh.

I recommend these for anybody who takes the issue of policy seriously:
that’s from the Wall Street Journal; the other one from there that I have recommended to Rob repeatedly is here: …it’s more about transitioning because of peak oil.

Okay, here are some more. These following are not WSJ but are economists in support of carbon tax and shift:
TD Bank:
Former US Fed Reserve Chairman:
Bank of Montreal (among others):
The Economist:
LA Times:
Mark Jaccard:
Robert Reich: (Haven’t heard from Bill McKibben for awhile on Desmogblog, but he’s involved here)
Greg Mankiw & other economists:

Besides the peak oil thing from WSJ linked earlier, there are some who think about carbon taxes for non-AGW-focussed reasons. Domestic Job Creation:
and economic stimulation: Enjoy.

Clean coal technology refers not to any one project but to an entire suite of advanced technologies. For example, there are more than 300 research projects around the country where several billion dollars are being devoted to clean coal technology, each one breaking new ground and helping pave the way for an energy independent future.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced last month that it plans to fund the addition of carbon controls for integrated gasification combined cycle power plants being planned. In addition, the agency will begin concentrating on several new carbon capture and sequestration projects.

As for FutureGen itself … despite what you may have heard or read, the FutureGen project has not been cancelled. Even though President Bush decided not to include FutureGen in his budget proposal, Congress has the final say on funding. The discussion on FutureGen simply moves to Capitol Hill.

Remember — the benefits of investing in clean coal technologies far outweigh the costs.

Coal will remain the backbone of the U.S. electricity system for decades if not centuries, and incorporating carbon capture and sequestration is essential to our future.