*As seen in the January 9th issue of The State Journal.
Unless we are all prepared to quit breathing, we are not going to put an end to all emissions of carbon dioxide. Unless we are all prepared to pay much higher energy costs and live in a severely crippled economy, we are not going to put an end to the use of coal anytime soon. As with most things in life, the key to addressing concerns about man's effect on the climate (and the role that carbon dioxide plays in that) will be to adopt a reasonable and balanced approach to changing circumstances. For coal-based energy, carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be a significant part of such an approach.
CCS is the term now commonly applied to describe the processes whereby carbon dioxide (CO2) is captured during the combustion of coal, compressed to convert it to a supercritical fluid, and "stored" (really, disposed of) in deep geologic formations via injection wells. In the absence of a suitable geologic horizon nearby, CCS also will typically involve the transportation of the captured CO2 via pipeline or barge from the generating source to the injection site.
While this may sound like a vision from a futuristic novel, most of the steps involved in CCS have been taking place for quite a while. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has observed that CO2 has been naturally trapped in a variety of underground geologic formations for hundreds of millions of years, including CO2 that has been held under the Pisgah Anticline in Louisiana and Mississippi for more than 65 million years. As to new storage areas, Department of Energy and International Energy Agency estimates suggest that there is enough storage capacity in the United States to handle over 3,000 gigatons of sequestered CO2 -- enough to accommodate the emissions of nearly 1,000 coal-fired power plants for 1,000 years.
Likewise, oil producers in Texas and other states have been injecting CO2 for purposes of enhancing recovery of those resources for decades, an activity that has been routinely permitted by EPA and delegated state agencies under the Safe Drinking Water Act's Underground Injection Control (UIC) program. Recently, EPA published proposed regulatory amendments that would impose detailed permitting, environmental protection, and financial responsibility standards for a new class of UIC wells specifically designed for CO2 injection as part of a CCS system.
Though the regulation of CO2 pipelines or other transportation modes is not as well developed, some piping of CO2 is already taking place, and EPA estimates that 95% of the largest stationary sources in the country that emit CO2 are within 50 miles of a candidate storage reservoir. Most importantly, existing federal regulation of natural gas transportation provides a significant analogue that could be used a basis for a CO2 pipeline regulatory program.
The initial step in the process -- capturing CO2 during coal combustion -- may be the greatest area of technical uncertainty, particularly on the large scale that will be necessary to eliminate substantially all CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants. It is also the most expensive component of CCS, accounting for over 85% of total costs. However, several companies have developed promising technologies that continue to be tested in pilot applications, both as a part of the Department of Energy's CCS regional partnership program and in privately sponsored projects.
In short, though there are certainly differing views within the scientific community, it is reasonable to assume that the technology will be in place within the foreseeable future to support the incorporation of CCS as a part of all new coal-fired electric generating plants. Perhaps the more significant question is whether our legal and regulatory system will allow that technological development to occur.
As noted, the basic regulatory framework is already under development or exists in different forms. The adaptation of these programs to CCS ought to proceed as quickly as possible, including scientifically-justified, risk-based performance standards and monitoring rules. Even if that occurs, however, there will still be a number of key legal issues to be addressed if CCS is to be widely deployed, most of which are related to post-injection storage issues. Some of these include: ownership of geologic pore spaces and underground saline (water) formations; classification of CO2 under the various hazardous substance and waste programs; exemption of CCS activities from common law strict liability exposure; and bonding and long-term liability/insurance mechanisms.
Our State and federal officials are to be commended for taking the lead in seeking the passage of appropriate legislation to achieve these goals. They should be encouraged to keep West Virginia in the forefront in pushing for enactment of an appropriate legal framework to support the development of CCS, and also in securing funding for necessary CCS infrastructure. Our country's energy security demands nothing less.