The Lost Cause of Clean Coal

The Lost Cause of Clean Coal

A recent congressional hearing (“DOE Oversight: Status of Clean Coal Programs”, House Energy & Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Feb. 11) discussed the Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Program. The hearing included a discussion of new reports released by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

In total, Congress has allocated $7.6 billion in the last decade to advance Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technologies for commercialization, the cornerstone of DOE’s Coal Program.  But the recent evidence suggests CCS technologies won’t be commercially viable for decades to come, if ever. 

The prospects for CCS were summed up best by Julio Friedmann, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Clean Coal at the Department of Energy (DOE), when he acknowledged “…the technical availability [of CCS] is independent of [its] economic viability.” That is, CCS technologies will become increasingly available in the coming years, but that doesn’t mean companies will use them. When asked whether coal power plants would install CCS under current law, Mr. Friedmann said: “It is unlikely that they would deploy CCS technology, in large part because they would not be able to get a return on their investments…” That makes it unlikely that taxpayers will ever get a return on their investment. 

Of course, the true costs of using CCS technology may not be fully known for years. To date, CCS has never been deployed at full-scale for commercial purposes in a coal-fired power plant.  The first plant to do so in Kemper County, Mississippi is set to come online later this year. The cost of constructing that plant is now more than double the original certified estimate of $2.4 billion (not including $270 in DOE subsidies). According to Mr. Friedmann, neither that plant nor any other of the CCS demonstration projects would have been built without government subsidies. The commercial viability of CCS would not exist without artificial government support, and even with billions in subsidies it is still in doubt.

The big takeaway from the recent hearing is that the DOE has spent billions of dollars to develop a technology that even if successful, will cost taxpayers billions more in subsidies. Since 2008, $6 billion in taxpayer dollars has been spent on DOE’s Coal Program. Congress needs to stop cleaning out taxpayers’ pockets for the false pursuit of clean coal and let industry pick up the tab.