Policy Peril Segment 8: Coal (updated 08/26/2009)

by Marlo Lewis on August 18, 2009

Today’s excerpt from CEI’s film, Policy Peril: Why Global Warming Policies Are More Dangerous Than Global Warming Itself, is on the global warming movement’s anti-coal campaign and the dangers it poses to U.S. consumers and the economy. To watch today’s clip, click here. To watch the entire film, click here.

The text of today’s excerpt follows. I provide additional commentary and links to supporting information in the footnotes.

Narrator: First and foremost, they want to ban construction of new coal-fired power plants. [1] Why? Coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel. It releases the most carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced. [2]

More importantly, emissions from new coal plants are expected to swamp, by as much as five to one, all the emission reductions that Europe, Canada, and Japan might achieve under the U.N. global warming treaty, the Kyoto Protocol. Either global warming activists kill coal, or coal will bury Kyoto. [3]


Figure Source: Myron Clayton, New coal plants bury ‘Kyoto,’ Christian Science Monitor, 23 December 2004.

Narrator: To be fair, the activists say they’ll allow new coal generation, if the power plants deploy something called CCS, carbon capture and storage technology. [5] The idea is that instead of releasing CO2 into the air, the power stations would capture it, liquefy it, and then transport it to underground storage sites. [6] There’s just one problem. No commercial coal plants today have CCS technology. [7]

I asked Mary Hutzler, formerly head of analysis at the Energy Information Administration, how long it would take just to determine whether a CCS system would be economical for utilities to build.

Mary Hutzler, former Acting Acting Administrator, Energy Information Administration: It probably requires an immense amount of research and development. People have told me 1o to 15 years alone. [8]

Narrator: Mary also told me that building a national CCS pipeline network could take another decade. Developing the regulations would also take years. [9] So the proposed moratorium is really a ban on new coal plants for 20 years or more.

What’s the risk here? New coal generation is forecast to supply two-thirds of all new electric power over the next two decades. By 2030, new coal generation is expected to provide 15% of all our electricity. [10] So banning it, could create one heck of a power deficit. Frequent blackouts and power failures–an energy crisis would not be an unlikely consequence. At a minimum, our electric bills would go way up.

Narrator: But Al Gore is not content to ban new coal plants. He now proposes to scrap all existing coal plants and natural gas power plants too. He says we must replace all carbon-based electricity with carbon-free electricity in just 10 years–by 2018. [11]

Ben Lieberman (Heritage Foundation): The idea is absolutely off the charts, unrealistic. [12]

Dr. Patrick Michaels (Cato Institute): Al Gore is proposing the literally, physically impossible. [12]


[1] James Hansen, the NASA scientist whose congressional testimony during the hot summer of 1988 launched the global warming movement, calls coal power plants ”factories of death“ and “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.” The “top priority of any climate policy must be to stop the building of traditional coal plants,” writes climate crusader Joe Romm. He continues: “A climate policy that does not start by achieving at least the first goal, a moratorium on coal without CCS, must be labeled a failure.” “The silver bullet [for global warming] is no more coal,” says Architecture 2030. “Kill Coal. Coal is the enemy of the human race,” declares the Sustainable Development Issues Network. My Google search shows that global warming and coal are discussed on some 4,470,000 Web sites. It’s a safe bet most of those sites share the Gorethodox sentiments quoted above. 

[2] Different fossil (carbon-based) fuels emit different amounts of CO2 in relation to the energy they produce. For a variety of fuels, the U.S. Energy Information Administration compares pounds of CO2 emitted per energy output measured in British thermal units (Btu).

Fuel                                                        Pounds/Btu

Natural Gas                                          117

Liquefied petroleum gas                 139

Gasoline                                                156

Coal (bituminous)                             205

Coal (subituminous)                        213

Coal (lignite)                                       215

Petroleum coke                                 225

Coal (anthrocite)                              227

From these numbers, we can calculate the emission ratios (or relative CO2 intensity) of the fuels. For example, bituminous coal is 1.37 times more CO2-intensive than gasoline, and 1.75 more CO2-intensive than natural gas.

[3] The Christian Science Monitor chart shown above and in the film clip is based on late 2004 estimates by UDI-Platts, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and unspecified industry sources. David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a February 2005 speech, presented a similar bottom line, based on International Energy Agency (IEA) data. He said:

 The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that 1400 GW of new coal plants will be built worldwide in the next 25 years alone. To put that in context, current U.S. coal capacity is about 330 GW and global capacity is 1000 GW. This enormous increase in coal capacity will lock us into a huge additional commitment to global warming unless we use technologies that reduce CO2 emissions to minimal levels; marginal efficiency improvements will not prevent this lock-in.

The lifetime emissions from just this next wave of coal investment will be about 580 billion tons of CO2. That amount is more than half the total loading of the atmosphere with CO2 from all forms of fossil fuel combustion in the past 250 years!

Build scores or hundreds of new coal plants, and the Kyoto CO2 reductions barely amount to a drop in the bucket. As has been widely reported, China is building coal power plants at the rate of one a week.

[5] A wide-ranging coalition of environmental groups called “Coal Moratorium Now“ demands that no new coal-fired power station be built unless it is equipped with carbon capture and storage. In 2008, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA)–the authors of the 2009 Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill (H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act)–introduced legislation (H.R. 5575) to impose a moratorium on new coal plants lacking CCS. In March 2009, state legislators introduced a similar bill in Texas. In April 2009, the UK Government proposed regulations requiring new coal plants to install CCS on at least 400 MW of output–about 25% of the output of an average power station. In addition, the power stations would have to capture 100% of their emissions by 2025–if the applicable technology exists by then. That’s a big “if.”

[6] A wealth of both basic and technical information on CCS is available in studies by MIT, the U.S. Government Accounting Office, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the Congressional Research Service, the Department of Energy (DOE), and Glaser et al. (2008).

[7] Oil companies sometimes inject CO2 into wells to squeeze more petroleum out of them–a technique called enhanced oil recovery (OER). Sometimes people talk as if a CCS system could piggy-back on EOR projects. But, as MIT’s Future of Coal report points out, CO2 injection for EOR has “limited significance for long-term, large-scale CO2 sequestration–regulations differ, the capacity of EOR projects is inadequate for large-scale deployment, the geologic formation has been disrupted by production, and EOR projects are usually not well instrumented [monitored for CO2 leakage; p. xiii].”

The Department of Energy (DOE), citing rising costs, pulled the plug on FutureGen, a $1.5 billion government-industry partnership to build the world’s first commercial scale CCS power plant. In July 2009, however, FutureGen Alliance, Inc. announced it had reached an agreement with DOE to begin “construction of the first commercial-scale, fully integrated carbon capture and sequestration project in the country in Matton, Ill.” So there is still not even a commercial-scale demonstration project, though there may be in the next few years.

[8] MIT’s March 2007 Future of Coal report calls for large demonstration projects in 3-4 sites in different regions of the country costing “$500 million over eight years.” Better still, MIT argues, “Five large tests could be planned an executed for under $1 billion, and address the chief concerns for roughly 70% of U.S. [coal generation] capacity. Information from these projects would validate the commercial scalability of  geologic carbon storage and provide a basis for regulatory, legal, and financial decisions needed to ensure safe, reliable, economic sequestration” (p. 54).

EPRI’s Bryan Hannegan estimated in March 2007 that CO2 capture (including compression, transportation, and storage) would increase the levelized cost of an Integrated Gassification Combined Cycle (IGCC) coal power plant by ”about 40-50%” (p. 5). IGCC is already more costly than the more common pulverized coal (PC) power plants. EPRI is confident that additional RD&D will lower carbon capture costs. But by how much and how soon is uncertain.

A February 2009 Stanford University study, citing a September 2008 McKinsey & Co. study and other sources, says that CCS is projected to increase the capital costs of new coal power plants by almost 50%. “On the basis of avoided emissions, the cost of CCS ranges from $30-$90/ tonne CO2, which translates into a 60-80% increase in the levelized cost of electricity ($/MWh).” 

A July 2009 Harvard University study estimates that early adopters of carbon capture technology will incur a cost of $100-$150/ton of CO2 avoided (equivalent to 8-12 cents/kWh). Once the technology matures, the additional cost will fall to $35-$50/ton of CO2 avoided (equivalent to 2-5 cents/kWh), the researchers estimate. For comparison, in 2009, residential electric rates were 20.9 cents/kWh in Connecticut, 9.2 cents/kWh in Kansas, and 14.6 cents/kWh in California.

How long between early adoption and technological maturity? According to the researchers, increasing scale, learning by doing, and technological innovation “are expected to reduce abatement [CO2 capture] costs by approximately 65% by 2030, although such estimates are inevitably uncertain” (emphasis added). 

In plain speak, it may take many years to sort out the economics of CCS.

[9] The scale of the network of pipelines and storage sites required to transport and bury CO2 from U.S. coal power plants is staggering. According to MIT’s Future of Coal report (p. ix):

  • The United States produces about 1.5 billion tons per year of CO2 from coal-burning power plants.
  • If all of this is CO2 is transported for sequestration, the quantity is equivalent to three times the weight and, under typical operating conditions, one-third the annual volume of natural gas transported by the U.S. gas pipeline system.
  • If 60% of the CO2 produced from U.S. coal-based power generation were to be captured and compressed into a liquid for geologic sequestration, its volume would about equal the total U.S. oil consumption of 20 million barrels per day.
  • At present the largest sequestration project is injecting one millions tons/year of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the Sleipner gas field into a saline aquifer under the North Sea.

Even if Congress approves such a system, and major environmental groups support it, NIMBY (”not in my backyard”) protests and litigation could block or delay implementation for many years. Some people just don’t like energy projects, regardless of how “green” the projects purport to be. For the gory details, check out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s ”Project No Project“ Web site. 

[10] Two-thirds of all new generation and 15% of total U.S. electric supply–these estimates came from the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) 2008 Annual Energy Outlook. See the figure below.


Coal’s estimated share of new generation and total generation are lower in EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2009. EIA forecasts that from 2007 to 2030, new coal generation will provide 64% of all new generation and 9% of total U.S. electric supply. See the figure below.


Actually, it’s remarkable that EIA still forecasts a robust increase in electric generation from coal. Coal increasingly operates in a politically hostile, litigious environment. The Sierra Club, for example, claims that its activists, lawyers, and allies, working with state and local leaders, have prevented 100 planned coal power plants from being built over the past eight years. Click here for a partial list.

For example, even in Texas, an energy-producing state, environmental activists stopped TXU Corp. from building eight of 11 planned new coal power plants, despite estimates by the Perryman Group that investment in the new plants, over five years, would add $25.8 billion to state GDP, $17.3 billion to in-state personal income, and 389,000-plus person-years of employment.

[11] I’m not making this up. The text and video of Gore’s speech calling for carbon-free electricity by 2018 are available here.

[12] According to the EIA, in 2008, renewable sources generated 356 billion kWh, of which 259.7 billion kWh, or 73%, came from conventional hydro-electric dams. Total net generation by the electric power sector was 3852 billion kWh. So renewables provided only 9% of total generation, which means that only about 2.4% came from the politically-correct renewables–wind, biomass, solar, and geothermal.

Note that non-hydro renewable sources would provide even less electricity but for a plethora of market-rigging federal and state tax breaks and subsidies and Soviet-style production quotas known as renewable portfolio standards.

Coal and natural gas provided 2654 billion kWh, or about 69% of total U.S. electric generation in 2008. Gore and his allies would undoubtedly oppose the construction of new large hydroelectric dams even if suitable sites were available. So what Gore and “We Can Solve It” are proposing to do, is replace the 69% of our electricity that comes from coal and natural gas with the non-hydro renewables that currently supply only 2.4%–all in 10 years. 

This plan would fail–dismally. Our electricity rates would skyrocket, because the demand for renewable electricity, ramped up by mandates, would vastly exceed supply. No transition that big and that fast would be smooth. Service disruptions and blackouts would likely be frequent and perversive–a chronic energy crisis.

Gore’s plan would also set a world record for government waste, since hundreds of profitable coal and natural gas power plants would have to be decommissioned long before the end of their useful lives.   

 To read previous posts in this series, click on the links below:

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