PENWELL, Texas — New EPA rules aimed at cutting carbon emissions are expected to be unveiled June 2. Coal generates nearly half of this country’s electricity and is the largest source of air pollution.
The new rules are expected to spur the use of clean coal technology. At least that’s the hope of both the coal industry and some environmental groups.
Although the term “clean coal” seems like an oxymoron to some people, the expression refers to the best way known currently to use a product that’s plentiful in the United States and relatively cheap.
Some analysts believe the United States has coal reserves they say will last for 250-300 years. The United States has often been cited as the "the Saudi Arabia of coal" since the energy crisis, a theme that has been trumpeted by both Democrats and Republicans, although that description has been routinely challenged.
There are two planned coal plants in the U.S. that will sequester harmful CO2 and generate electricity. One is in Kemper, Mississippi, and the other is in West Texas.
The Texas project is slated for an 600-acre piece of empty land in Penwell, a onetime oil town in the 1930s near the geographic center of the Permian Basin of West Texas.
Today, Penwell is a deserted piece of flatland beside a major interstate highway that didn't exist when the town was created to service the oil industry.
Abandoned oil tanks lie in an empty field. Wind whistles through a fence and the rumble of nearby Interstate 10 is constant.
The directors of a plan known as the Texas Clean Energy Project say a coal-fired power plant will be built here over the next four years. It’s a plant some people say can be an environmental game changer.
“I am in favor of building electric power plants that capture their carbon,” says former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, one of two directors of the project in Texas.
As mayor, she was decidedly against expanding coal’s footprint in the energy grid.
In 2007, Miller was one of the leaders of a coalition of Texas cities that successfully derailed plans by the energy company TXU to build 11 coal-fired plants in Texas.
Fast forward to 2014. Miller now heads up the $3.5 billion Texas Clean Energy Project, which despite the name is all about making electricity from coal.
But not the old way, as Miller explained.
“Traditional coal plants take a lump of coal, put a match to it and it burns up a smokestack,” Miller said. “And you desperately try to pull off sulphur, mercury, grit off the coal emissions."
The new twist sounds simple enough but it’s expensive, turning coal into gas.
“Twenty-first century coal takes coal and puts it in a large receptacle called a gasifier and you add a little pure oxygen and you heat it up to 3000 degrees Fahrenheit and you make a gas out of the lump of coal,” she said.
Miller says that’s what marks this technology.
“By putting it into a gaseous form,” Miller said, "you’re much more able to pull out the bad stuff including carbon dioxide.”
The technology is called called Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS. Eight industrial facilities in the United States — none of them power plants — use this technology right now.
With CCS, captured carbon dioxide is buried in the ground, theoretically permanently.
What's new is that these projects will be the first to use coal gasification and carbon capture technologies together to make electricity.
A major Texas utility has agreed to buy electricity produced at the plant. The electricity is made by using synthetic gas from the gasification of coal.
And virtually all the captured CO2 will used to extract oil here in the Permian Basin, the country’s highest producing oilfield. The captured carbon will be specifically used for enhanced oil recovery, known as EOR.
Cooled and compressed carbon dioxide will be injectedinjected into the ground, reducing the viscosity, or the thickness or gooiness, of crude oil, which eases the crude’s flow to recovery wells.
The Texas plant will also produce byproducts like fertilizer and sufuric acid.
As hopeful as that might sound, critics charge that any use of CCS will slow the country’s migration to renewables like wind and solar.
But several major environmental groups, historical foes of coal, support the project.
“It’s very difficult to perceive a future where we are not using fossil fuels for energy for decades into the future,” said Tim Profeta, Director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Solutions at Duke University.
“It’s also difficult to foresee that we can address our problem of climate change if we do not capture the carbon from those fossil sources,” he said.
He said that CCS technology represents a timely, calculated — albeit expensive — roll of the dice.
“Any new technology brings along risks of, will it perform and how much exactly will it cost?” he said.
Profeta put CCS in general and the Texas project in particular in context.
“By putting this capture technology on the ground we’re narrowing the risks around its future deployment. And it’s very important to do the first one," he said.
The EPA won’t force existing plants to adopt CCS. But by mandating emission reductions, the agency hopes to create a regulatory landscape where the technology is adopted as new plants are built, making CCS cost effective over time.
The Environmental Defense Fund’s Jim Marston, who helped shape California's carbon cap-and-trade program, says CCS is also critical for emerging energy-hungry economies.
“The real opportunity for growth is actually in India and China where they’re continuing to build new coal plants,” he said.
“We could clean up their plants. And we need to do that very quickly because China is now surpassing the U.S. as the number one emitter of carbon dioxide.”
In fact, China’s already in this game. China’s Export-Import Bank has agreed to lend the Texas project $1.6 billion, marking its largest foreign investment in the technology.
Changing the U.S. power infrastructure is like stopping a guided-missile cruiser. It can’t be done quickly.
That’s why supporters of the Texas project say the technology is important right now even if it implies the long-term continued use of coal.