Health & Environment / Tech & Innovation

New Tech Promises To Clean Up Coal

Update: On June 1, President Obama unveiled his plans to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

By Marguerite Ward, World Policy Journal

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be convening in June 2014 to debut its drafted rules for cutting the country’s carbon emissions. In President Obama’s words, the new rules will “put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants.”

As officials weigh the different measures to cut carbon emissions, one technology called Carbon Capture and Storage takes center stage as a possible solution.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) captures and stores carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel underground, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. It’s a promising new technology to delay climate change, but its costs and risks carry a heavy price tag.

CCS, also known as “sequestration,” takes coal smog and separates CO2 from the rest of the gases and particles. It then puts the CO2 into liquid form, and injects it deep into the ground. It strips the greenhouse gas from coal and oil burning pollution.


Coal miners in Criseluna, Santa Catarina, Brazil.

Why consider such desperate measures? Coal, the cheap fuel of choice for countries like China, the U.S., India, and Russia, is by no means a thing of the past. Nearly 40% of all U.S. electricity is generated by coal, according to 2013 government data. At the same time, air pollution warnings and smog holidays, often linked to coal and other fossil fuels, are greatly impacting cities from Beijing to Cairo.

Michelle Nijhuis, internationally syndicated environmental reporter and author of “Can Coal Ever Be Clean?” explained to World Policy Journal why she has accepted the new technology as a viable option.

“Like it or not, coal is going to be here for a while. We need to reduce our carbon footprint if we are to head off some of the worst effects of climate change.”

Over the past three decades, the U.S. has spent $6.5 billion in researching the process. The UK just got the green light from the EU to start developing its own version of the technology. But CCS is still relatively new, and many argue that its potential risks and hefty price tags are simply too high.


Mark Zoback, a geophysicist at Stanford University, once called CCS “too expensive and too risky.” Research shows that CCS has the potential to cause small earthquakes, which could undermine the safety of the whole carbon storage site. Additionally, the National Academies found that injecting carbon into the ground, like hydraulic fracturing, can cause water contamination.

No leaks or sudden releases of CO2 have been reported from the various sites where carbon storage is already underway. A North Dakota plan has already captured and stored 20 million metric tons of CO2. Cenovus Energy, a Canadian petroleum company, pushes its CO2 underground.

“We’re not at a point where we can line up the risks against the benefits…” Nijhuis said.  “but I look back to what happened in the 90’s with sulfur dioxide regulation and acid rain, where regulations did jumpstart innovation in that technology and made it more reliable, more efficient, cheaper.”

While Nijuis pointed out that CCS is much more complicated than reducing sulfur dioxide, she continued, “I think regulation could lead to the same sort of improvement and efficiency and dependability and cost reduction. We could reduce the risks associated with CCS certainly far below the risks associated with continuing to dump carbon into the atmosphere.”


The question of cost remains. The world emits 2.4 million pounds of CO2 per second, according to official 2012 estimates. Burning coal by the billions of tons, and dumping CO2 into the air is completely free by most fiscal and monetary accounts. But in terms of human health, the toll unmitigated coal use and CO2 dumping has been costly. Asthma and other chronic conditions have shot up across the world due to smog. In China, over 1.2 million deaths have been linked to the country’s barely breathable air. Coal, like it or not, is linked to death.

While billions of tons of coal make their way from deposits to factories and then into our air via smog, policymakers are increasingly pressured to do something about air quality. Can the world afford not to capture and store its CO2?



Marguerite Ward is the online news editor at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Kym FarnikUN Photo/Sebastiao Barbos, Wikimedia, and Isengardt]



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