Embracing a Cleaner Coal Future

The role of coal in the future U.S. energy mix is a key issue in the Senate debate over climate legislation. Another senator has recently drawn attention to the importance of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to coal. On December 3, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) issued an opinion piece entitled “Coal Must Embrace the Future.”

West Virginia produces more coal than any state other than Wyoming and accounts for about 13.5 percent of total U.S. coal production. Coal-fueled power plants provide nearly 98 percent of West Virginia’s electricity. Coal mining accounts for about 6 percent of West Virginia’s state GDP and 3 percent of total state employment.

Senator Byrd’s opinion piece addresses issues related to mountaintop removal mining and climate change. Notably, on the question of climate change, Senator Byrd writes that:

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table. The 20 coal-producing states together hold some powerful political cards.

Disinterested analyses (e.g, from MIT and EPRI) project coal with CCS to be a significant component of a least-cost portfolio of low-carbon energy technologies.  Coal currently provides nearly half of all U.S. electricity. Senator Byrd’s opinion piece reinforces the distinct importance of preserving a significant role for coal in a future U.S. energy supply in order to secure broad political support (i.e., at least 60 votes in the Senate) for action on climate change.

Senator Byrd earlier stated that he did not support the climate and energy bill passed by the House in June (H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009) “in its present form.” Our recent brief describes the significant investments the House energy and climate bill includes for demonstration and deployment of CCS with coal-fueled power plants. The senator does, however, highlight in his opinion piece that he has been working for the past six months with a group of coal state senators on provisions that could be included in a Senate climate and energy bill that would facilitate a transition to a low-carbon energy future for the coal industry.

In short, Senator Byrd’s opinion piece is a candid assessment of the situation as he sees it: the science supporting man-made climate change is clear; U.S. climate and energy legislation will pass eventually; cooperative, constructive engagement by coal state Senators in crafting such legislation is the best strategy for protecting the interests of their constituents.

Fittingly, one of the most advanced CCS projects in the world recently began operation in Senator Byrd’s home state—American Electric Power’s Mountaineer Plant Carbon Dioxide Capture & Storage Project.

Steve Caldwell is a Technology and Policy Fellow