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Boucher's Gambit

A “clean” bill on carbon tech won’t stay clean for long.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2008

An interesting development in the climate change debate occurred this summer in the U.S. Congress. It wasn’t the Senate’s work on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act ; that was a complete palaver and an embarrassment for American democracy. No, it was a bill quietly introduced by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House Energy & Air Quality Subcommittee.

On June 12, Boucher introduced the Carbon Capture and Storage Early Deployment Act , with support from a bipartisan group of legislators in coal-dependent states, as well as industry companies and organizations. The Boucher bill would create an industry-funded and industry-managed organization to finance development and deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. It would follow the model of the Propane Education and Research Council, which former Massachusetts Environmental Secretary John Bewick discussed in a recent Fortnightly feature story ( Cultivating Clean Tech ,” May 2008).

Specifically, the bill would mandate a referendum among U.S. electricity distributors, asking whether they’d be willing to add a carbon surcharge to retail electricity bills (averaging $10 to $12 a year per customer), with the proceeds used to create a CCS development fund. If 75 percent or more of utilities answer “yes,” then the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) would be asked to form an independent corporation and board of directors that would figure out how to spend the $1 billion-a-year CCS fund. The fund and the corporation would be dissolved after 10 years, unless Congress renewed the legislation.

At first glance, this approach seems to address many of the issues raised in Bewick’s article. First, it creates a nationwide structure to finance R&D on an equitable and predictable basis. Second, it keeps the money out of government hands, putting the industry in charge of setting priorities for development. Third, it allows lawmakers to avoid raising taxes, instead putting the onus on the industry to assess the carbon “fee.”

Given all that, the bill stands at least some chance of being enacted—which would be good news for both the global climate and the coal industry, whose futures might depend on the ability to sequester greenhouse gas emissions.

But looking more closely at the bill, an important question arises: why should such a groundbreaking initiative focus so narrowly on CCS while excluding other technologies aimed at accomplishing the same goal, perhaps more effectively and affordably?

Protecting Coal

One of the most obvious ways to reduce GHG emissions is to improve the efficiency of coal-fired power plants. If we can get more power out of the same amount of coal, then we’ll have less carbon to capture for each kilowatt-hour generated.

Of course, coal’s opponents don’t like this answer. They’d rather eliminate coal-fired generation completely. But given coal’s vital role in the economy, advancements to improve the efficiency of coal combustion—with such technologies as ultra-supercritical burners—should rank among the industry’s top priorities. As the Boucher bill is written, however, it

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