Coal Plant Gets EPA’s First-Ever Approval To Inject Carbon Emissions Underground

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"Coal Plant Gets EPA’s First-Ever Approval To Inject Carbon Emissions Underground"

Smoke stacks from a coal-fired power plant located just outside of Jewett, Texas, Nov. 28, 2007.

Smoke stacks from a coal-fired power plant located just outside of Jewett, Texas, Nov. 28, 2007.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Simonite

The Environmental Protection Agency for the first time on Tuesday issued permits to allow a coal-fired power plant to capture its carbon dioxide emissions and inject them deep underground, a process that many hope could help control climate change if it is ultimately successful.

FutureGen Industrial Alliance Inc. received four identical permits to use the process, called carbon capture and storage (CCS), at its long-planned FutureGen 2.0 coal plant in Meredosia, Illinois. The company’s goal is to capture and inject 1.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year for the next 20 years, the yearly equivalent of 232,000 cars, according to EPA.

“The issuance of the permit is a major milestone that will allow FutureGen 2.0 to stay on track to develop the first ever commercial-scale, near-zero emissions coal-fueled power plant with integrated carbon capture and storage,” FutureGen Alliance CEO Ken Humphreys said in a statement.

The permits mean the FutureGen project is one step closer to beginning its long-awaited process of refitting the existing coal-fired power plant in Meredosia, and drilling four, 4,000-foot deep underground wells to inject liquefied carbon dioxide and store it long-term. Drilling those wells could start as soon as October, the EPA said.

The concept of using CCS to achieve a low-emission “clean” coal plant has been talked about for years now, but not without skepticism. On the one hand, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has purported that CCS can help control climate change by allowing the country “to use our abundant fossil fuel resources as cleanly as possible.” According to the DOE, CCS is a “next-generation” clean coal technology, an “all-of-the-above approach to develop clean and affordable sources of American energy.”

On the other hand, as ClimateProgress’ Joe Romm has argued, there is no way to know yet whether CCS will be successful as a strategy to mitigate climate change. He warns against looking at the process as a be-all and end-all to fix the climate problem. The technology requires a “staggering” amount of CO2 injection to make a difference as a climate solution, Romm has said, citing a Businessweek report claiming the emissions from just one coal-fired plant would require an underground storage space the size of a major oil field.

“Pretty much every major CCS project relevant to large-scale deployment at coal plants has been scaled back, delayed, or cancelled entirely,” Romm has written, noting that the NextGen project itself has faced numerous setbacks since it was first announced by President George W. Bush more than a decade ago. The original plan from President Bush — the FutureGen 1.0 project — was scrapped because of massive cost increases, according to Midwest Energy News.

Some have raised issues with the safety of the process. A Duke University study found that if injected CO2 were to begin leaking from the underground wells, it could “bubble up into drinking water aquifers near the surface, driving up levels of contaminants in the water tenfold or more in some places.” In addition, a 2009 Stanford University report warned that the process could “trigger small earthquakes that might breach the storage system, allowing the gas back into the atmosphere.”

Romm notes that none of this is to say we shouldn’t try using CCS. It’s just that as of now, he says, there are too many uncertainties regarding how well it would work and how safe it would be to deem it a “major climate solution.”

Still, CCS could become extremely important in the wake of the EPA’s proposed regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing coal plants. If the technology is successful, it could become a way for coal plants to keep operating with strict limits on how much carbon they can emit into the atmosphere.

Until a coal plant in the U.S. is actually CCS-functioning, though, there is no way of knowing if the technology could work. To see all the hurdles FutureGen 2.0 still faces, Bloomberg BNA has a good rundown here.

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