In an effort to curb carbon emissions without stifling economic growth, a bipartisan group of U.S. policymakers is pushing for deployment of new technology to capture and store carbon dioxide below ground.
Carbon capture and sequestration is a process that intercepts carbon dioxide emissions from power plant smokestacks and quarantines the gas below ground, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. With climate change at the forefront of energy worries, carbon capture and storage provides a way to potentially cut emissions without exacerbating the other leading energy concern: skyrocketing prices.
A new bill in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality attempts to jump-start this technology by creating a private corporation to deploy demonstration projects. The Carbon Capture and Storage Early Deployment Act would generate about $1 billion per year for 10 years by allowing the corporation to assess annual fees to consumers of electricity generated from fossil fuels. The money would be used to fund deployment of carbon capture and sequestration projects, projected to cost between $700 million and $1 billion each.
The fee would add an extra $10 to $12 annually to most residential electricity bills, according to subcommittee estimates.
This represents a $10 billion tax on American consumers that will be spent without government oversight, said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.
"This bill takes $10 billion and hands it over as a blank check to an (entity) … with no government oversight," Markey said Thursday at a hearing of the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee.
But the fee is nominal, and the lack of oversight is a good thing, said Michael Morris, CEO of American Electric Power, one of the largest electric utilities in the United States.
"Keeping the money out of the hands of the administrative arm of the government is one way to ensure something gets done," Morris said.
Besides, Morris said, this represents a much cheaper option for stopping climate change than previous, economy-wide legislative attempts.
In order to mitigate global climate change, most scientists agree greenhouse gas emissions must be cut significantly. At the same time, though, energy demand is growing, and chances are that increased consumption will be met primarily with coal, if today's energy mix is any indication, said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.
"The United States currently generates more than 50 percent of its electricity through the use of coal, a fuel that must continue to be part of our energy mix," said Dingell, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Even if the United States were able to drastically reduce coal use, developing countries rely heavily on the fuel to power their growing economies and aren't likely to give it up, said Eugene Trisko, legal counsel for the United Mine Workers of America, a union for miners and other professionals.
"Our leadership in carbon capture and storage is critical to the world's ability to use coal responsibly," Trisko said at Thursday's hearing.
Without this technology, China and India, now major greenhouse gas emitters, are unlikely to agree to real emissions reductions, Trisko said.
As a result, carbon capture and storage may be the best way forward, witnesses said Thursday.
So far, the bill has enjoyed wide bipartisan support -- a growing phenomenon in today's polarized energy debates. However, some of the fundamental disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on how to address gas prices and climate change surfaced during Thursday's hearing.
Without a cap-and-trade system that mandates emissions reductions, bills such as this one will be ineffective, said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.
"Even if we do this and it's successful … if we never adopt a cap-and-trade system, and there's never a price on carbon, nobody will ever use it," Inslee said.
Implementing a cap-and-trade system would lead to more effective deployment of carbon capture and storage than the current bill, said Michael Goo, climate legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental protection organization.
"Give the industry a carbon capture and storage power plant, and there will be one or two carbon capture and storage power plants," Goo told representatives Thursday. "Put a price cap in place, and there will be widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage in the marketplace."
Not so, say industry representatives.
While the technology has been used in advanced oil and recovery, it has not yet been implemented in a large-scale project at a power plant. The technology looks promising, but it's not ready to come online yet, said Barry McNulty, spokesman for We Energies, a Wisconsin utility company.
"More research definitely needs to be done," McNulty told United Press International. "Many of these projects work great in the lab, and now we're trying to apply that to existing plants."
We Energies is currently testing one particular carbon-capture technology at one of its power plants, but a number of obstacles still exist, particularly for the storage aspect. These include locating and identifying safe deposit sites, transporting carbon dioxide to the sites and the cost of sequestration, McNulty told UPI.
Safety concerns have also arisen. Earthquakes and other natural disasters could potentially cause leakage, said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
"If you have a natural disaster, and (the carbon dioxide) is released into water or oil or gas reserves, who pays for the damage?" she asked at Thursday's hearing.
While this issue should be addressed, the best way to do so is through deployment of the technology, said Preeti Verma, research assistant for the Carbon Capture and Sequestration Project at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.
"People say CO2 might leak, but if the project's done well, and if you do proper site management, the chances of that happening are minimal," Verma told UPI.
In order for projects to go forward, government help is necessary, Verma said.
"Unless we have a policy signal, we don't see it happening," she said.