- - Tuesday, October 22, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The White House’s most recent climate change initiative — its long-awaited proposal to make coal “climate-friendly,” released by the Environmental Protection Agency last month — perversely threatens to strangle forever the use of one of our most abundant energy resources.

Consider this: The EPA proposal will require new coal-fired power plants to use “carbon capture and storage technology” to store carbon dioxide emissions underground. Environmentalists have long touted it as the holy grail of climate change technology.

The law requires that the technology be commercially “demonstrated” before EPA can require it for new power plants. In this case, the EPA is relying on the Kemper Project in Mississippi, a next-generation project that would use coal more cleanly and would capture carbon dioxide emissions for tertiary recovery in nearby oil and gas drilling.

So far, so good. However, if EPA’s heavy but arguably premature reliance on Kemper’s technology fails technically, or legally, or both, it could stop all carbon capture research in its tracks, wasting the considerable investment made so far and poisoning everything in the technology pipeline.

Kemper is a very promising combination of technologies, to be sure, but for now the project is unfinished and thus no basis for the EPA’s assertion that the carbon capture technology is “commercially viable” and thus ready to be mandated for all new coal-fired power plants.

Even more curious, while the Obama administration is hastily and prematurely trying to mandate the Kemper Project’s technology for all power plants, environmentalists are trying desperately to block Kemper from happening at all.

The nation must reject both of these extremes. The government must not turn Kemper into a new national mandate, but environmentalists also must not prevent us from seizing the unique opportunity that the Mississippi project offers. Thanks to its location near oil and gas drilling sites, Kemper is uniquely positioned to put captured carbon to good use. Its technology, if successfully commercialized, could be a model for future projects. The taxpayers already have invested in this project’s development, and we all deserve a return on that investment. But Kemper’s unique location and one-off Energy Department support mean that it cannot be duplicated immediately.

EPA’s proposal to use Kemper’s unique circumstances sets a bar that’s simply unreachable for most of the nation’s other coal-fired plants in the near term. Even EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy acknowledged that Kemper may be too much of a one-off situation to act as an immediately available universal benchmark.

The EPA’s new requirements will prevent other power companies from investing in research or attempting their own market experiments with other technologies. The EPA’s proposed power plant regulations are a stark contrast even to the government’s fuel economy standards, which are being ramped up much more slowly, and which provide for midterm reviews and adjustments over time to assess how well things are going a decade out.

This is a tragedy. The U.S. can be “the Saudi Arabia” of coal, as Daniel Yergin, one of the nation’s leading energy analysts, recently explained in his widely read book, “The Quest.” The Kemper Project offers a unique opportunity to provide critical research on a pollution-free way to develop one of our nation’s most important resources. It would be a shame for environmentalists to block the project. And it would be no less a shame for the administration to use the relatively high cost of Kemper’s trailblazing technology as an excuse to prevent other companies from offering innovative new technologies of their own.

There are, in addition, serious questions about the pace of climate change — and thus also the need immediately to ratify a particular carbon capture technology as commercially demonstrated today. There is a lot of ongoing research that should be completed before prematurely picking solutions.

For example, carbon dioxide has for years been used in tertiary oil recovery and this is the goal of the storage technology being used by the Kemper Project. But there is also the possibility of using carbon dioxide in fracking operations, which could solve many various water-related issues raised by fracking. And what about methane hydrates? We should allow all of this competitive research to pan out before the government mandates one particular approach.

Boyden Gray was White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush. Under President George W. Bush, he served as U.S. ambassador to the European Union and U.S. special envoy for Eurasian energy.