Jul 24, 2017
Column / Harder Line

The world needs clean coal but can't get it

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Fossil fuels accounted for 81% of the world's energy consumption in 1987. Thirty years later it's still 81%.

Why that matters: This data point, shared with me by the chief of the International Energy Agency during an interview last week in Washington, shows why technology making fossil fuels cleaner is desperately needed to address climate change. Coal, oil and natural gas aren't going anywhere, no matter the strides the world makes in renewables and other energy sources.

What's the problem: The technology at issue, which captures and stores carbon from fossil fuels instead of emitting it into the air, is too expensive and the obstacles to making it cheaper aren't going away. In some cases they're getting bigger, beacuse of cheap oil and natural gas, technical snafus and high-profile flops like the recent $7 billion failure of a Southern Company project that would have captured emissions from a coal power plant.

The Energy Department, IEA, and possibly other government agencies are making plans to announce in November an effort "to give new momentum" to carbon capture technology, Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, told me last week.

"New momentum" is critical. In the next 25 years, the world needs hundreds of plants that can capture carbon dioxide in order to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions by an amount scientists say is needed, IEA predicts. Today, only 17 such projects exist around the world, and just two of those are capturing carbon from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel that needs the technology the most.

"I don't see carbon capture technology taking off in the absence of government support and working with the private sector," Birol said. He was in town to meet with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, among others.

The planned November announcement will shed light on whether the Trump administration backs with action its positive rhetoric on carbon capture technology. It hasn't so far. In fact, it's taken contradictory steps, like proposing to cut the Energy Department's fossil energy office by more than 50%.

Apart from the planned November announcement, the Trump administration has two other chances coming up to show it has more than just nice words for this technology:

  1. Tax credits: A rare bipartisan group of more than 20 senators, including Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), and John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), just introduced legislation to extend and ramp up expiring tax credits for carbon capture technology. The administration doesn't have a position on the bill right now because it was just introduced, a White House spokeswoman said.
  2. Loan guarantee: In the waning days of the Obama administration, the Energy Department conditionally approved a $2 billion loan guarantee for a carbon capture plant in Louisiana. The project is focused on industrial manufacturing, another key way the technology is needed to cut emissions. An Energy Department spokeswoman said the office was working closely with the company on the application, indicating it could receive a final approval.

Here's the bad stuff that could be in store if the technology doesn't take off:

  1. The economic costs to slow climate change would soar, becoming up to 140% more expensive compared to other scenarios, according to the United Nations latest summary of scientific work done on the issue. This carbon capture technology is far more important to cutting emissions than any other technology or energy type, according to the U.N. summary.
  2. The worst impacts of climate change could end up happening. A lot of people read that recent New York Magazine article laying out the worst-case scenarios of unabated climate change. Putting aside the various criticisms it received, some of what it discussed are a lot more likely to happen if the world doesn't find a way to burn fossil fuels cleaner.

"If you take climate change seriously, and you look at the reality, 81% of our energy is coming from fossil fuels," Birol says. "We need this technology."

That's another problem. Top Trump officials, including Perry and the president himself, have shown no signs they think climate change is real, let alone a problem worthy of addressing. Asked about whether he talked to Perry about climate change, Birol put his hand up and didn't say anything.

Asked about Trump pulling out of the Paris deal, he replied: "We need everybody to move together to address this great problem of our humanity."

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