RFF on the Issues

RFF on the Issues: Can Carbon Capture and Sequestration Keep Coal Viable?

Jan 5, 2017 | Peter Nelson

As the inauguration of President-elect Trump approaches, questions persist about his campaign promises to revive the coal industry. But despite rhetoric about the “war on coal,” the industry’s decline has been driven largely by market forces, including production shifts to more profitable mines and competition from other energy sources. Coal will nonetheless continue to play a role in the US energy mix, but the industry faces challenges from prevailing market trends and potential new limits on carbon emissions. Proponents of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)—a process that captures carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal-fired plants, then injects the gas into deep underground reservoirs to ensure containment—point to the technology as a reason for optimism. A recent New York Times article highlighted the soon-to-be-completed Petra Nova plant in Texas, which “will capture 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide each year—equivalent to the greenhouse gas produced by driving 3.5 billion miles, or the CO2 from generating electricity for 214,338 homes.”

Yet widespread adoption of CCS technology remains uncertain, primarily because of cost concerns. As RFF’s Joel Darmstadter and Jan Mares outline in a new blog post, “Development of a successful CCS regime will ultimately, and decisively, need to reflect a strategic calculation: How does the incremental cost of a ton of CO2—for capture, transport, and containment—compare with the incremental cost of equally effective CO2 abatement through one or another feasible alternate policy?” Whether the new administration will embrace CCS as a means to support the coal industry’s viability remains to be seen. However, as the authors note, “If efforts to support CCS were to endure under the Trump administration, CCS could allow some continued use of coal to generate electricity, even while meeting constraints on carbon emissions.”

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The views expressed in RFF blog posts are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Resources for the Future.