NEW HAVEN - Later this week, American Electric Power will begin pumping a small stream of carbon dioxide from its Mountaineer Power Plant deep under the bottomland along the Ohio River in Mason County.
AEP hopes the gas stays there. The company wants it tucked safely away, where it can't add to the heat-trapping gases already building up to dangerous levels in the Earth's atmosphere.
If the Columbus, Ohio-based utility's pilot project works out, it might just help save the world - and along the way rescue the coal industry.
But coal is in a race with the climate.
The planet is heating up faster than scientists thought it would just a few years ago. Experts say greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced soon, before it's too late.
At the same time, the coal industry says it needs more time to perfect and deploy technology to capture and store carbon dioxide from power plants.
Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is expensive. It sucks up a lot of a power plant's energy and takes up tremendous space.
Power companies haven't figured out exactly how to do CCS on the monumental scale needed. And experts aren't sure if pumping such huge amounts of compressed CO2 underground is really safe.
Nobody knows if coal or climate is going to win this important race, but the world is watching, and even some of the strongest advocates of CCS have started to make it clear that the path ahead for coal is far from easy.
"The Congress and indeed all Americans must come to recognize the gigantic undertaking and significant sacrifices that this enterprise is likely to require," Gary Spitznogle, AEP's manager of CCS engineering, told a House committee in Washington in late July.
In a recent special edition of the journal Science, Scottish CCS expert R. Stuart Haszeldine warned that carbon capture projects might be falling behind the pace that is needed.
Haszeldine cited a "lamentable lack of financial commitment to real construction." If more pilot projects aren't up and running by 2014, "learning from these to provide commercial credibility will drift beyond 2020."
"The worldwide construction of many tens of hundreds of large CCS plants - necessary for a substantial impact on climate mitigation - will then be delayed beyond the deadline set by climate change predictions," Haszeldine wrote.
Coal's 'elusive holy grail'
In recent months, one major media outlet called CCS coal's "elusive holy grail." Without it, another outlet said, the industry faces a "valley of death."
Report after report makes it clear that any real effort to reduce greenhouse gases must target coal. Emissions from coal-fired power plants are the nation's largest source of global warming pollution. Coal represents about a third of U.S. greenhouse emissions, equal to the combined output of all cars, trucks and buses.
Climate scientists recommend swiftly reducing these emissions, and ultimately cutting them by at least 80 percent by mid-century to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
In 2007, the U.N.-chartered Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that unabated greenhouse-gas emissions could likely increase global temperatures by as much as 11 degrees by 2100. The IPCC, a collection of more than 2,000 scientists from around the world, said there was little time to lose.
"If there's no action before 2012, that's too late," said IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri, who is both a scientist and an economist. "What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."
'It's been a circus'
The Mountaineer Plant's smokestacks tower over a bend in the Ohio River northeast of Point Pleasant.
Lately, the nearly 30-year-old plant has been crawling with visitors from around the world. Everybody wants to get a look at AEP's first-of-its kind CCS project.
"It's been a circus," said J.L. Perry, the plant's energy production superintendent.
When state permits were issued for the project, Gov. Joe Manchin - one of the project's biggest boosters - proclaimed that CCS technology "is here, today."
But in reality, all that's here today is a relatively small test project.
AEP has strapped its CCS equipment onto a "slip stream" that represents about 20 megawatts of the 1,300-megawatt Mountaineer Plant. It captures a similar share of the facility's carbon dioxide emissions, or about 1.5 percent. AEP hopes to win federal funding to expand to about 230 megawatts, still less than one-fifth of the plant's capacity and emissions.
So far, industry has tried carbon capture only on a very small scale. Experts agree that one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to translate small test projects to literally thousands of power plants around the world.
Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, put the scale of CCS needed into perspective in a 2006 paper.
Suppose the world wanted to capture just 10 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and pump them underground, Smil wrote. Doing so would "call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by a petroleum industry whose infrastructure and capacities have been put in place over a century of development.
"Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation."
'Almost inevitable decline'
Nearly a decade ago, the IPCC had warned that the coal industry "producing the most carbon intensive of products, faces almost inevitable decline in the long term."
The 2001 report noted that CCS technologies were being tested, but would not make "major contributions" to emissions cuts until at least 2020.