On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency formally announced that heat-trapping greenhouse gases are a danger to human health and welfare, a move that could lead to the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, power plants, and other industrial sources.
The determination—which will undergo a sixty-day comment period before any details or specific actions are decided—drew coverage from all the major outlets. A cap-and-trade bill introduced in March in the House of Representatives, likewise designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, has also received a lot of press attention over the last few weeks. The Obama administration still prefers legislation to regulation—but regardless of which path is chosen, the United States would have to undergo a profound technological transformation, energy-wise, to meet its de-carbonization targets.
It has been reassuring, then, to read numerous articles, both national and regional, over the last month about our technology options, weighing those we have against those we need and discussing the political and economic feasibility of each. To wit, the media conversation about one of the most controversial options, carbon capture and storage (CCS), has finally turned into a meaningful debate.
Just over a year ago, I wrote a column arguing that journalists were neglecting the CCS story. It had been three months since the Bush administration’s Department of Energy cancelled the FutureGen project—a plan to build the U.S.’s first “near-zero-emissions,” coal-fired power plant—and news about CCS had almost vanished from the news. About a month after my column, The New York Times ran an article whose headline summed up the problem: “Mounting Costs Slow the Push for Clean Coal.” (I’ll ignore, for a moment, the use of that oxymoronic slogan about cleanliness, which should be expunged from journalists’ vocabularies.)
The press’s disinterest in CCS continued into the fall, despite the fact that both Barack Obama and John McCain had, on the campaign trail, repeatedly promised Americans that it would play a significant role in the future energy economy. The fact that Australia, Germany, and other foreign nations were opening test plants didn’t seem to matter either.
When coal-ash ponds in Tennessee and Alabama burst in December and January, flooding hundreds of surrounding acres with toxic sludge, the press leapt into action. Widespread articles, editorials, and commentaries made what seemed like a concerted effort to once and for all denounce the idea that coal could ever be “clean.” It was, without a doubt, a noble and much needed effort. But, as CJR argued at the time, very few reporters bothered to explain that the term “clean coal” was coined to describe carbon capture technology and not the heavy metals in coal ash, effectively postponing, once again, a more complete discussion of whether or not CCS should be a part of the so-called energy revolution.
Then came the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and, in a span of ten months, the New York Times headline changed from “Mounting Costs Slow the Push for Clean Coal” to “Stimulus Money Puts Clean Coal Projects on a Faster Track.” The Obama administration’s package allotted $3.4 billion to developing CCS, making it one of the key elements in the roughly $70 billion earmarked for energy overall. Though it was already ex post facto, the press was once again interested in covering the debate about whether or not the investment was a good idea.
A few weeks after Obama signed the stimulus bill a headline at Scientific American’s 60-Second Science blog laid out the quandary: “Carbon capture and storage: Absolute necessity or crazy scheme?” Environmentalists who otherwise agree on the urgent need to address global warming are divided over that question, which is what makes CCS such a sticky issue. The rest of the Scientific American post, by David Biello, described two events in New York City which occurred at roughly the same time. At one, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was talking about CCS’s important role in mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions; at the other, the Sierra Club was calling it a lifeline for a toxic, outdated fuel source.
The NRDC epitomizes the position that CCS is necessary because, like it or not, the U.S.—and even more importantly, China and India—will continue to burn large amounts of coal for decades to come. The Sierra Club, on the other hand, represents the opinion that any dollar spent on CCS, or anything to do with coal (the mining of which will always be destructive, and which will always produce ash in burning), is a dollar wasted, which could have gone to clean technologies like wind and solar. There is also the argument that, global warming aside, CCS is neither financially nor technologically feasible.