Can Carbon Capture Help Coal Survive a Low-Carbon Diet?

  • Carbon capture at coal-fired power plants is energy intensive, and requires multiple steps to get the carbon out of flue gas and into a compressed form that can be pumped underground. Photo: Ed Whitaker Flickr Creative Commons

  • Tom Crooks, of the R.G. Johnson Co., at his company's new workshop in Waynesburg, Pa. The coal mining construction company has about 35 laid-off employees. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

December 12, 2014
First published May 2, 2014

CORRECTION, 5/5/14: In the original copy and audio of this story, we misidentified Tom Crooks as Jim Crooks.  

Tom Crooks walks through a brand new industrial building in Waynesburg in the southwest corner of the state. This is Pennsylvania’s coal-mining country. Some of the biggest mines in the state are right down the road. There are stacks of supplies and machinery in tidy bundles scattered throughout the floor.

“We spray concrete on the ceiling to help hold up the mine roof. A lot of what we do is concrete construction in the mines,” Crooks says.

Crooks is a vice president of the R.G. Johnson company, which helps build coal mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The company just built this new workshop. Crooks says it’s a sign that the company thinks coal is here to stay.

But there are signs the industry’s prospects are tenuous. R.G. Johnson has 150 employees, but without enough work to keep them busy, about 35 of them are laid off right now.

“That’s not what we want,” Crooks says. “We want to have 150 people working, full-time, all the time.”

Crooks says federal carbon regulations are partly to blame. A recent United Nations climate report found the world will need to drastically cut CO2 emissions to stave off runaway global warming.

To cut emissions in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) recently proposed requirements that new coal plants use carbon capture and sequestration. This is a technology that takes CO2 produced from coal combustion and pumps it underground. And the EPA is in the process of writing regulations for existing plants, that could also require carbon capture.

This has the coal industry worried. Carbon capture is expensive, and still in its developmental stage. Last summer, FirstEnergy closed two coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, saying compliance with current and future environmental regulations would cost too much to keep them open. 

Crooks sees this as part of a trend.

“The reality of it is, this industry would be much more healthy if there weren’t the potential of the regulations.”

POLITICAL WILL

This has politicians from coal states—like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett—on the offensive. At a recent coal industry conference, Corbett lashed out against the EPA’s carbon regulations.

“We need to work with the industry, and not in opposition to the industry. Simply regulating coal out of existence, doesn’t solve anything.”

Corbett told the industry executives in the crowd, that he’s confident new technology can reduce coal’s carbon footprint. He invoked the space program, which has developed an international space station and landed a Mars Rover.

“If we can do that, you can’t tell me that it's not possible given the time and given the right approach, and given help from Washington, that we can’t come up with a solution, of cleaner air… and getting rid of greenhouse emissions,” Corbett told the crowd.

CARBON CAPTURE: A LAZY MOLECULE AND A LONG ROAD

Carbon capture has been around for a while, but there are only a handful of full-scale projects implementing the technology right now. The first carbon capture coal plant in the U.S. is under construction in Mississippi. But that plant is billions of dollars over-budget and a year behind schedule.

Carbon capture is energy intensive, and requires multiple steps to get the carbon out of flue gas and into a compressed form that can be pumped underground.

Michael Matuszewski of the Department of Energy’s National Energy and Technology Lab, near Pittsburgh, says part of the difficulty with developing the technology is CO2’s chemical makeup—it doesn’t make it very easy to work with.

“CO2 is a lazy molecule it doesn’t really want to do a lot chemically, so it’s difficult to manipulate,” Matuszewski says.

All of these steps make coal fired-electricity about 40 percent more expensive to produce.

PUTTING A PRICE ON CARBON EMISSIONS

Howard Herzog, an engineer at MIT, says the problem with carbon capture isn’t technology. It’s policy. Without a price on carbon emissions—either through a cap and trade system or a carbon tax, carbon capture isn’t price competitive. 

“If you do something like put a market price on it—coal has a fighting chance with this technology,” Herzog says.

A plan in 2010 to pass a cap-and-trade system died in the Senate, and won’t be taken up again anytime soon. Without a price on carbon, the Obama administration has used the EPA regulation to try to address climate change.

Herzog said he thinks the coal actually do well under a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system.

“I think coal will do better under a carbon price than it will under the path we’re going down now,” Herzog says. “Because the path we’re going down now is coal’s in everyone’s target. They’re basically trying to get coal out of the marketplace in anyway they can.”

A 'HERE AND NOW' TECHNOLOGY'

Philip Jagucki, a geologist with Schlumberger Carbon Services, says his company is already pumping compressed carbon dioxide into sandstone at a demonstration project in Illinois.

“The goal of the project was to inject 1 million tons. Right now we’re at 800,000. The project is expected to finish in November, of 2014,” Jagucki says. 

He thinks the progress at his and other projects means that carbon sequestration isn’t too far off.

“It’s definitely not far in the future because we’re doing it right now—I mean we know how to do it.”

Jagucki says there are technical aspects that still need to be improved—like pulling CO2 out of the smokestack. Solving these problems is a critical step to help combat climate change, says John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force.

“Coal is so abundant, it is so inexpensive, it is so energy-dense, that someone is going to use it,” Thompson says. “The issue isn’t whether we’re going to have coal or not. The issue is whether we’re going to continue to use it in a way that kills the planet. And we have a choice.”

WORRIES PERSIST

Back at his company’s workshop in Waynesburg, Tom Crooks says his biggest fear is the transition period it’ll take to fully implement carbon capture. He’s afraid the new EPA mandates will give electric generators a reason to stay away from coal.

“They’re not going to sit still, they’re going to go ahead and build a gas plant, or they’re going to go ahead and do something else. But whatever it is, it won’t be coal.”