Air Pollution Control Equipment Services, Coal, Emissions

The Time Has Come for a Carbon Cap

Issue 2 and Volume 110.

By Robert Smock, Senior Vice President, PennWell Corp.

The power industry must take the initiative in developing a workable plan to cap – and eventually reduce – emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants.

The argument for doing nothing because the link between power plant emissions, global warming and catastrophic climate change is uncertain is no longer valid. That’s because it is uncertain. There may be a link. Therefore, we, as a society, need to mitigate the risk. Our insurance is a carbon cap. There’s just no other way.

The Kyoto plan is not workable for the United States, but that is no reason for doing nothing. It’s up to us to help our regulators and legislators come up with a workable plan. We have to show leadership. We cannot point to developing countries that are unwilling to do anything. We cannot point to other unregulated sources of so-called greenhouse gases. We cannot claim that the cost is unacceptable. We have to take responsibility for what needs to be done and what can be done in our industry. We can set the standard for how countries can continue to use their coal resources while significantly reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change.

The claim that a carbon cap will eliminate our best baseload fuel option, coal, is just not valid. Replacing the existing antique coal-burning plants with modern, high-efficiency, supercritical coal-burning designs will allow us to produce the same amount of electricity with a huge reduction in all emissions, including carbon dioxide. With a reasonable cap and a reasonable time frame, it will allow us to increase coal-fueled electricity production and maintain coal’s 50 percent share of electricity production for a long time.

That means the environmentally grandfathered status of old power plants must end. The Bush administration has protected that status, but it must end on a reasonable timetable. That means all power plants need to meet “new-source” emission standards, including a new carbon cap.

That would cost too much? That’s a societal decision. Our responsibility is to determine the costs of various approaches. Cost is a direct function of timing. I’ve been using the word “workable” and timing is a major part of workability.

Why would I propose such a policy? Because I’m a tree-hugging fool?

Carbon dioxide emissions can be capped without threatening coal’s future contribution to U.S. supply. In fact, doing nothing is a much bigger threat. A cap is the best way to ensure that coal remains the backbone of our electricity production. We have vast coal resources, and we want to be able to use them. If we don’t move in this new direction, misguided opponents of coal will have a much better chance of killing the coal option. Like all choices, coal has a downside – which has been underlined by the recent mining fatalities. We need to do all we can do to minimize that downside – emissions, mine safety and the rest.

If you don’t believe that embracing emission reduction has a positive result, look at the record. Since 1970 and the imposition of federal emission regulations on power plants, coal has maintained its 50 percent share. Would that have happened without the drastic emission reductions we’ve actually achieved? I don’t think so. Has the cost been prohibitive? No – coal is still the cheapest baseload fossil fuel option. Are you proud of your emission reduction record? Yes. Sulfur dioxide emission from coal-fired plants and the resulting so-called acid rain problem is no longer an issue. Acid rain was a huge apparent problem 15 years ago, as big as global warming is today. Now, it’s forgotten. The “workable” sulfur dioxide cap – and reduction in emissions – was achieved at an acceptable cost, and it kept coal in the game.

Do you remember the acid rain problem? Do you remember the power industry’s opposition to doing anything about it? Aren’t you now glad that the first Bush administration crammed sulfur dioxide caps down our throats and eliminated that political threat to coal? I learned my lesson from that experience.

I’m proposing the next step in this process. It doesn’t have to be a radical, unprecedented imposition of impossible requirements. The devil is in the details, as always. I leave the details to our experts. They did a good job with sulfur dioxide. I’m confident they can do a good job with carbon dioxide, particularly with a constructive and positive contribution from the power industry. All we need is a shift in our basic attitude toward this issue.

The official energy outlook for the United States, recently published by the U. S. Department of Energy, says that coal’s share of electricity production will rise from today’s 50 percent to 57 percent by 2030. I don’t think that will be politically possible without a carbon cap.