- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2013

President Obama’s new climate change agenda seems to spell the eventual end of coal-fired power plants in America.

But new findings released Wednesday could offer a path to survival for the fuel, which still provides about 40 percent of the nation’s electricity.

The U.S. Geological Survey now estimates that as much as 3,000 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide could be stored underground in rock formations. Such large-scale storage would greatly reduce — or perhaps eliminate entirely — harmful carbon emissions from coal plants.

Those emissions are seen by Mr. Obama and many others as the driving force behind climate change and the target of harsh new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s really a breakthrough. One of the take homes here is that there is enough storage resources throughout the U.S. for carbon capture and storage to be utilized just about anywhere in the country,” said Bruce Hill, a senior scientist and geologist with the Clean Air Task Force, a leading public health and environment advocacy group.

The exhaustive study — the first of its kind, experts say — shows that the U.S. has enough storage capacity to handle more than 1,000 years’ worth of CO2 from the power-generation sector. It identified sites along the Gulf Coast, in Alaska, the Rocky Mountains and elsewhere as suitable long-term storage spots for CO2.

The USGS plan calls for the carbon to be “pressurized” until it becomes a liquid. It would then be injected deep underground, far away from drinking water supplies and under near-impenetrable rock.

Such carbon capture and storage would allow coal power plants to operate much more cleanly.

“This is good news for the fossil fuels industry because it means that fossil power can continue to operate in the future without its carbon footprint,” Mr. Hill said.

The U.S. emits about 5.5 gigatons of “energy-related” CO2 each year, according to the Interior Department. That figure includes emissions from automobiles.

Of the 5.5 gigatons, Mr. Hill said between 2 and 2.5 gigatons come from the power industry, much of it from coal-fired plants.

Those facilities have become public enemy No. 1 for the Obama administration, which has long been accused of waging a “war on coal.” An adviser to the president said earlier this week such a war is exactly what’s needed if the U.S. truly wants to tackle global warming.

Mr. Obama’s EPA already has proposed strict new rules on carbon emissions for new power plants. During a highly anticipated speech on climate change policy earlier this week, Mr. Obama called for new emissions guidelines for existing plants.

In their current modes of operation, coal plants simply wouldn’t be able to satisfy those new standards, meaning the president’s new policy would result in coal being phased out.

Trapping and storing carbon, however, would change the equation.

“If enough of this [storage] capacity also proves to be environmentally and economically viable, then geologic carbon sequestration could help us reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a news release announcing the findings. The USGS is a bureau of the Interior Department.

While the storage question has been solved, there are still significant cost concerns for the fossil fuels and power-generation industries.

Carbon-capture technologies can add as much as 30 percent to the price tag of a new plant, according to some estimates. Retrofitting old plants with the necessary technology also would cost many millions of dollars, with exact figures depending on the size of the facility.

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