The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have sued coal and rail companies in federal court over coal dust from trains heading to export terminals in the Northwest. This action is an attempt to force Clean Water Act regulations on coal transport, but the larger goal is to impede the permitting and construction of the remaining planned coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington. Plans for three export terminals have already been scrapped, which environmentalists view as a win. The export terminals are intended to transport low sulfur Power River Basin coal to Asia, where coal is high in demand and expected to increase. Environmental groups cite pollution from coal dust, diesel emissions from rail traffic and climate concerns as reasons to oppose coal export terminals.
Coal companies are increasingly looking to growing overseas markets as U.S. coal use declines. Domestically, coal demand is falling due to low natural gas prices and environmental regulations. The combined effect of commodity competition and compliance costs are causing older coal electric generating units to retire or be replaced with new natural gas-fired capacity. Currently, the largest coal export terminal in the U.S. is at Norfolk, Virgina with most shipped coal headed to Europe. In 2012, U.S. coal exports were double what was exported in 2009. Coal exports from the U.S. to UK alone jumped more than 70 percent in 2012.
Unfortunately, actions to stop coal exports or shutter U.S. coal plants do little to battle climate change. In this regard, the actions of environmental groups seem to ignore that developing countries will continue to use coal, with or without U.S. exports. Even if the U.S. could completely eliminate its dependency on coal and significantly reduce carbon emissions, those reductions are projected to be offset by increases in carbon emissions from developing countries. In countries where the population has access to (mostly) reliable electricity, it can be easy to overlook that 1.2 billion people in the world still lack access to electricity. We are are world of energy haves and energy have-nots, both in terms of resources and access. The energy source that is most available and affordable to developing countries? Coal. While the U.S. has the largest coal deposits of any country, the combined reserves in Russia, China, and Australia eclipse U.S. reserves. China’s growing demand for coal alone will drive production and use.
Energy and climate organizations including the International Energy Agency (IEA), World Resources Institute, and a coalition of environmental non-governmental organizations that includes the Clean Air Task Force, The Climate Institute and E3G have pointed to the critical role that carbon capture and storage (CCS) has in mitigating climate change. The problem is that carbon capture for existing power generating stations has been expensive and not even approached the scale needed. Sequestering carbon from exhaust gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels (post-combustion) requires cooling the flue gas, using a solvent to separate the carbon dioxide (CO2) from the other gases in the exhaust (the CO2 only makes up a small percentage of the exhaust gas), and compressing the CO2. The energy required for the process significantly decreases the plant’s power generating capacity (called the energy penalty or parasitic load), so in essence you have to burn more fossil fuels to capture carbon, thus producing more carbon emissions.
Pre-combustion technologies and research into new chemical processes to capture carbon are promising for reducing the cost and increasing the efficacy of CCS. Pre-combustion technologies include chemical looping and gasification. In chemical looping, coal is is chemically broken down rather than directly burned and produces a highly concentrated CO2 stream, enabling more economical separation and higher capture rates. In gasification, coal is thermally decomposed (not combusted) into a syngas which primarily contains hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and CO2. The CO2 is removed to produce a syngas with certain specifications. Carbon capture from gasification is a mature technoology that has been commercially used in chemical plants.
Unfortunately, “clean coal” (which I always thought was a terrible term) has been labeled as a farce, demonstration projects have experienced delays and cancellations, and the shale gas boom have combined to derail investment in CCS. Interestingly, the same groups that lambaste CCS as too expensive and say it should prove itself without government investment are proponents of investing in renewable energy…with the government’s help. Okay, what about a carbon tax to level the energy playing field? Resources for the Future Center for Climate and Electricity Policy research indicates that natural gas would be the winner with a moderate tax on carbon, and a 10 percent reduction in U.S. carbon emissions would be partially offset by a 1 to 3 percent increase elsewhere in the world.
The data suggest that the “progress” of reducing the reliance on coal in the U.S. doesn’t address the larger issue of a growing world population dependent on fossil fuels. I am reminded of a sobering article on the U.S.’s “cognitive dissonance” courtesy of the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment blog. We are neither absolved of carbon responsibility if we reduce domestic carbon emissions, nor isolated from the effects of climate change if emissions from the rest of the world continue to increase. And that is precisely why the U.S. must invest in commercializing low carbon technologies, including CCS. Until solutions for reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion (not just coal, but oil and gas too) become economical we will continue spinning our wheels on climate change.