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  • Published: May 30th, 2009
  • Category: USA
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State studies coal plant carbon traps

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The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is leading an innovative effort to capture global warming-causing emissions from coal-fired utilities and industries and pump them deep underground in Western Pennsylvania.

If the ambitious and potentially expensive approach to collecting and sequestering the carbon emissions is successful, DCNR Acting Secretary John Quigley said, it will ensure the continued use of Pennsylvania coal and help the state capture manufacturing investments and jobs.

“This is a big effort, almost akin to a moon shot, but if it’s successful it will produce a huge economic and environmental prize,” Mr. Quigley said yesterday in Pittsburgh.

“We have to figure out a way to burn coal as cleanly as possible because everything I’ve seen indicates that we will be burning coal for a very long time. Our goal is to implement the permanent, safe storage of carbon emissions from power plants and industry and at the same time create economic opportunity.”

He said the idea is to retrofit up to eight coal-fired power plants and two industrial sites with equipment to capture carbon dioxide emissions, compress those emissions into a liquid and send it via pipeline to a site where it can be injected into a privately owned, deep underground storage area.

Efforts to build a demonstration project during the past decade have been delayed by high costs and lack of political commitment on carbon controls and climate change. As a result, Mr. Quigley said, the single demonstration project approach is not a viable model if the United States is to reach its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 — the minimum amount needed to reduce the impacts of climate change.

“We want to leapfrog that step and take carbon capture to a commercial scale right away,” he said.

Man-made carbon dioxide emissions, primarily from coal-burning power plants and other fossil-fuel burning sources, have increased from an insignificant amount 200 years ago to more than 33 billion tons a year worldwide, with 8.8 billion tons of that produced by the United States.

Those carbon dioxide emissions have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, trapping radiant heat from the sun and causing global warming and potentially unhealthy changes in regional climates.

During the last 11 months the DCNR has been developing a carbon capture and sequestration business plan in meetings with the state’s major utilities, coal companies, industries, energy development companies and the Clinton Foundation, which is helping develop similar carbon sequestration networks in Australia and the Netherlands. The first draft of that business plan will contain initial cost estimates and is scheduled for public release in June.

“The next step would be to get the plan to [U.S. Energy Secretary Steven] Chu with the idea of obtaining significant money from the federal stimulus package and get into research and design,” Mr. Quigley said. “We know we have a couple of hundred years of storage capacity underground. That puts us in position to take an aggressive approach and seize a huge potential opportunity.”

DCNR announced yesterday that it would begin collecting seismic data throughout Pennsylvania in July to determine which areas of the state are best suited for carbon sequestration. The $7 million geologic assessment was authorized in 2008.

Once a storage site is selected he said it will require three years of study to assure its safety.

Tom Hoffman, a Consol Energy spokesman, said the company has met with DCNR and recognizes that the storage part of carbon capture and storage is the key to making it work.

“Carbon capture is being done on an industrial scale every day, so it’s a matter of scale, not technological breakthrough, there,” Mr. Hoffman said. “The idea that Pennsylvania, with its coal reserves and power plants is pursuing development of central sites for sequestration makes a lot of sense.”

But even as carbon capture and sequestration has gained support in the coal and power industries, the wisdom of spending billions of dollars of public money to develop the technology has been questioned by environmental groups.

They say that many existing power plants won’t be able to use the carbon capture technology and that it will require power plants to produce 10 percent to 40 percent more electricity to operate the collection apparatus. That will increase coal consumption by one-third over today’s level and could lead to a doubling of operating costs and significant electricity price hikes.
Don Hopey can be reached at or 412-263-1983.

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