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DOE Admits CO2 Sequestration Years Away In Coal-To-Fuel Plant Study

A new supplement to a Department of Energy (DOE) draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for a proposed Pennsylvania coal-to-liquid-fuel plant acknowledges that technology to sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) is years away, highlighting a major flaw in the rush to develop such facilities, according to environmentalists who are concerned that the plants will generate millions of additional tons of CO2.

The supplement also includes a first-time calculation of the large amount of CO2 emissions that would result from the process of converting coal into gas using Fischer Tropsch technology, because the original DEIS only calculated the direct CO2 emissions from the plant and incorrectly assumed that the operator would sequester or sell the gas-streamed CO2, according to the document. That change significantly boosts the plant’s CO2 estimates, from 832,000 tons per year in direct emissions to 2,282,000 total tons per year, adding 1,450,000 tons per year from the CO2 stream.

“That is a big step for DOE,” an environmentalist says, noting that industry groups pressing for new coal development across the country “say sequestration will solve everything, and now there is an admission that we are a ways out on sequestration.”

However, an industry source warns that the findings do not mean that other proposed coal-to-liquid (CTL) fuel plants will not be able to sequester CO2 and that this study — conducted to meet National Environmental Policy Act requirements because the project will receive $100 million in federal funding — should not impact the development of other proposed plants.

The supplement comes as Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has teamed up with Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) to introduce the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007, S. 154, as well as announcing the formation of a CTL caucus. The moves prompted unusual environmentalist criticism of Obama as he explores a presidential run.

The DEIS supplement for the Gilberton Coal-to-Clean Fuels & Power Project, released in the Jan. 16 Federal Register, says, “The industrial participant has informed DOE that sale of the CO2 byproduct would not occur in the foreseeable future. In addition, DOE has considered the potential to reduce project CO2 emissions using geologic sequestration. This is not a reasonable option because sequestration technology is not sufficiently mature to be implemented at production scale.”

It continues, “Large-scale commercial deployment of the most promising carbon sequestration technologies is expected to be technically practicable within the next 15 years. During the 50-year duration of a commercial operation, a combination of economic incentives and new legal requirements might result in the industrial participant investigating the option to sequester CO2 recovered from the proposed facilities.”

The supplement also includes first-time information about the potential cumulative impact the Pennsylvania demonstration plant could have on CO2 emissions, noting that this project’s success “may encourage the development of similar facilities. . . . Because coal has a higher carbon-to-hydrogen ratio than crude oil, production of liquid hydrocarbon fuel from coal generates more excess carbon (released as CO2) than production of the same quantity of liquid fuel from petroleum. . . . However, recovery and sequestration of CO2 at a CTL production facility could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from CTL fuel production to levels below conventional petroleum-derived fuel production.”

DOE, which is taking comment on the supplement through Feb. 27, agreed to readdress CO2 in the DEIS after the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) repeatedly pressed the agency to do so.

In comments on the DEIS last year, NRDC argued that DOE needed to address the project’s cumulative impacts and took issue with the department’s conclusion that the CO2 emissions were not substantial when compared to global CO2 emissions.

“NRDC finds this argument problematic for several reasons. First, under such a test no individual source of CO2 would ever have its emissions regulated given the improbability of a single source ever constituting a significant percentage of total global emissions. Second, DOE’s argument does not reflect the current science about the implications that the increasing CO2 concentrations have on climate change,” NRDC wrote in comments to DOE last February.

The group in June wrote to DOE questioning its assumptions about the CO2 emissions from the project, asking DOE to re-estimate the emissions and include those generated by the gas stream. DOE agreed to the change, which NRDC noted in an August letter meant that “actual CO2 emissions . . . are nearly three times higher than the CO2 emissions originally reported in the draft EIS.” In the same letter, NRDC asked DOE to issue the information as part of a supplemental DEIS and take public comment on the document, which DOE just did.
NRDC sources could not be reached for comment.

A DOE source says the department issued the supplement to “clarify” the total CO2 emissions after learning that the gas-stream CO2 would be emitted. And the source says it is impossible to say whether this EIS will impact other CTL facilities. “It is not possible to predict decisions that will be made with regard to future coal-to-liquid fuel facilities,” the source says.

A Pennsylvania environmentalist following the issue says while it is unclear what, if anything, DOE might do about the additional CO2 emissions, “It is important that they said they missed a large stream of CO2 and are willing to discuss issues dealing with sequestration. . . . One thing is clear, and that is they are now looking at the issue in a completely different context than before, taking into account a heck of a lot more CO2.”

Additionally, an environmentalist in Montana — where Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) has announced plans to develop and deploy CTL technology — says the supplemental DEIS “gives us a foot in the door and is a useful document for us in Montana” when questioning industry claims about CTL and sequestration.

But the industry source disagrees and notes that many CTL plants in the works will include large-scale sequestration from the outset because industry realizes that it is necessary in order to move forward. “Some CO2 will get out but we will sequester as much as we can with technology.” The source references a proposal in Mississippi where an oil company has committed to using the CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. However, the source says industry will have to “wait and see” whether DOE’s findings impact other CTL proposals, and points to the Obama-Bunning legislation, which expands tax incentives for CTL, as a necessary step to getting plants built.

In a Jan. 4 statement on the bill’s introduction, Obama did not address CO2 or sequestration but noted that Americans would rather fill their cars with domestic, coal-based fuel than with foreign oil. “We already have the technology to do this in a way that’s both clean and efficient. What we’ve been lacking is the political will,” he said. — Dawn Reeves

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