A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study released in late September concludes that technological, legal, and regulatory uncertainties—compounded by the absence of a national strategy for combating global warming—are blocking deployment of crucial technology to capture and sequester carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants.

The GAO study, requested by House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and released by his office, concludes that without a mandatory national greenhouse gas control regime, coal-fired power plants—the largest single source of U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—have little incentive to capture and sequester their emissions.

At the same time, the stark lack of experience in and high cost of capturing CO2 from power plants—and legal and regulatory uncertainties about CO2 capture, injection, and storage—have prevented industry from scaling up the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology seen as crucial to the continued use of coal to generate electricity, the GAO said.

Markey, one of the most outspoken congressional advocates for combating climate change, seized on the congressional watchdog’s conclusion that a national greenhouse control program is needed to advance deployment of CCS.

“If carbon sequestration technologies are going to get off—and into—the ground, we must have national limits on global warming pollution…,” Markey said in a statement. “Solving coal’s climate conundrum is as vital as any challenge we face in battling global warming, and half-measures just won’t cut it.”

Carbon Storage Concerns Remain

The report concludes that the Energy Department has achieved “limited results” in lowering the cost of CO2 capture; that a proposed Environmental Protection Agency rulemaking on underground injection and storage of CO2 does not answer questions about how key environmental statutes apply to injection and storage; and that concerns about liability related to stored CO2, and how a CO2 pipeline network would be regulated, remain unresolved.

Over the past decade, research supported by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other knowledgeable authorities has concluded that capturing CO2 from power plants and injecting the heat-trapping gas into geologic formations is a credible method of reducing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The GAO researchers conducted a review of the pertinent scientific literature and contacted electric power companies, major oil and gas companies, CO2 pipeline owners, environmental organizations, and researchers at think tanks and universities to get their perspectives on key barriers to CCS deployment at commercial scale.

Based on these efforts, the GAO concluded that:

  • Energy Department research has achieved limited results in lowering the cost of CO2 capture from existing coal plants, primarily because most of DOE’s efforts have focused on integrated gasification combined-cycle technology, a promising technology for new coal-fired power plants but one that is less useful when applied to existing coal plants. The DOE only recently has begun to shift toward an approach that also emphasizes CCS technology for use on existing power plants.
  • The EPA’s July proposal on underground injection of CO2, issued under the Safe Drinking Water Act, does not address issues that lie outside the scope of that statute, including whether and how the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act apply to underground CO2 injection.
  • The EPA also has left unresolved major issues concerning how the Clean Air Act’s various requirements will apply to existing power plants that install CCS technology.

The GAO emphasized that “even if the DOE- and EPA-related issues are resolved, there are a number of issues, many of which cross the jurisdictions of multiple agencies, that could delay CCS deployment if not addressed in a timely fashion.” These include whether the federal government could be held liable if CO2 stored beneath public lands leaks onto adjoining non-federal property. In addition, a variety of federal agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Surface Transportation Board, the Department of Transportation, the DOE and the EPA will need to collaborate in determining how CO2 pipeline infrastructure might be regulated to accommodate commercial-scale CCS. The federal government also will have to develop a plan for how to treat CCS-related CO2 emission cuts in a future greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme.

Invest in Tech

The GAO recommended that the DOE continue its recent practice of placing greater emphasis on technologies that can reduce CO2 emissions from existing coal-fired plants. In addition, the congressional watchdog recommended that the EPA more comprehensively examine barriers to CCS development beyond those relevant to the Safe Drinking Water Act, including issues under federal waste disposal laws.

Finally, the GAO recommended the formation of an interagency task force or a similar mechanism to develop a comprehensive strategy to guide federal agencies in resolving remaining issues that, if not addressed proactively, could impede commercial-scale CCS deployment.

The GAO said that in comments responding to its recommendations, the DOE “neither explicitly agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation but included a number of comments that recognized a need for increased funding for CO2 emissions control technologies for existing coal-fired power plants.”

On the GAO’s recommendation that an interagency task force is needed to develop a comprehensive strategy for addressing outstanding CCS concerns, the DOE said its Climate Change Technology Program (CCTP) already addresses these issues. The GAO noted, however, that the CCTP focuses on technology and does not address major legal and institutional issues such as the regulation of CO2 pipelines. In addition, officials from the Interior and Transportation departments told the GAO they have not been asked to participate in CCTP deliberations.

The GAO responded that “we continue to believe that a more centralized task force with a broader mission, perhaps authorized by the executive office of the president, would be a preferable alternative” to the CCTP in addressing the CCS issues raised in the GAO’s report.
In its comments, the EPA said providing regulatory certainty on issues related to CO2 geologic storage is a high priority for the agency and agreed with the intent of the GAO’s recommendation that the EPA provide clarity on how statutes within the agency’s jurisdiction may apply.

—Chris Holly (cholly@accessintel.com) is a reporter for COAL POWER’s sister publication, The Energy Daily (www.theenergydaily.com).