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Chu says carbon capture 'will save coal'

Read more in Coal Tattoo

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Wednesday urged West Virginians not to fear the Obama administration's energy policies and to embrace carbon capture and storage technology as the way to continue burning coal while fighting global warming.

"It will save coal," Chu told reporters after speaking at a University of Charleston forum on carbon capture and storage, or CCS.

Chu took the stage with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to promote CCS -- and defend President Obama's coal policies -- to an audience of business leaders and industry officials.

In prepared remarks and a PowerPoint presentation, Chu said his agency's experts are convinced CCS can be part of the solution to climate change, despite concerns about its costs, safety and the feasibility of ramping up from pilot projects to widespread deployment.

"I think we can do this, but it will take time," Chu said.

Speaking alongside Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Rockefeller made perhaps his strongest statements to date in support of the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide emissions are changing the global climate in dangerous ways.

Rockfeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, also blasted industry leaders and members of West Virginia media who promote the notion that global warming isn't real.

"I'm concerned that powerful voices in West Virginia continue to argue that climate change is a myth," Rockefeller said. "I'm not on the same bandwagon that some of you are."

The senator said that climate change skeptics are harming West Virginia by putting off efforts to perfect and deploy CCS, giving natural gas more time to cut into coal's market and hurt mining's long-term viability.

"Burying one's head in the sand is not a solution, and can only backfire," Rockefeller said.

But, Rockefeller also repeated his opposition to any of the broad climate and energy bills pending on Congress that would put a cap on carbon dioxide emissions. He said he prefers his narrower bill to pump more money into CCS research and deployment first.

That opposition to a cap-and-trade bill puts Rockefeller at odds with Chu and the Obama administration, not to mention American Electric Power, which supported a House-passed bill that West Virginia's three congressional representatives voted against.

In a report issued last month, an Obama administration task force called the lack of comprehensive climate change legislation "the key barrier to CCS deployment.

"Without a carbon price and appropriate financial incentives for new technologies, there is no stable framework for investment in low-carbon technologies such as CCS," said the report, issued by DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Chu repeated those concerns during Wednesday's event, both in his prepared remarks and in a short question-and-answer sessions with reporters that followed.

"You need a long-term signal to investors," he said.

Once government makes it clear that greenhouse emissions are going to be capped, Chu said, "engineers work on it instead of lobbyists [and] miracles happen."

Coal plants account for a third of the nation's greenhouse emissions. While coal supporters and many scientists believe carbon capture technology can be part of the solution, there are major questions about the cost, scale and feasibility of installing the equipment on power plants around the world. Scientists are still looking for the best, safest and cheapest way to condense carbon dioxide, pump it underground and storage it indefinitely.

And while scientists believe there is an urgent need to slash greenhouse emissions to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international panel of experts, concluded in 2007 that carbon capture and storage might not make "important contributions" to climate change mitigation until after 2030.

Chu noted that the Obama administration's Recovery Act pumped $4.3 billion into CCS, including $334 million to expand a key test project at AEP's Mountaineer Plant in Mason County. Currently, the Obama plan calls for bringing five to 10 commercial CCS demonstration projects online by 2016.

Chu recalled that industry officials warned the 1990 Clean Air Act provisions to stop acid rain would cost $8.5 billion a year, but ended up costing only $2.3 billion. He predicted the same thing would happen with CCS.

"Technology improves continuously," Chu said. "Engineers and scientists do remarkable things and costs are driven down."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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