No…I’m not making this up! Pressure groups led by the Sierra Club have filed a barrage of lawsuits to revoke approval of a $4.3 billion clean coal power plant in Kemper County, Mississippi, that will demonstrate commercial CO2 removal technology to help save the planet from (gasp) dreaded climate change. And the reason? Well, apparently it’s too expensive. According to Mississippi Sierra Club President Louie Miller: “We can’t allow struggling families to be charged for a $4 billion plant that doesn’t operate as promised.”

Should this come as a big surprise after former Energy Secretary Steven Chu called upon his counterparts around the world to promote the “widespread affordable development” of clean coal technology? Well, maybe not. It seems that in addition to receiving at least $682 million in federal subsidies and tax credits, along with an unspecified amount of federal loan guarantees, the project has nearly doubled in cost over original estimates. Like Solyndra and other vaunted green government marvels, taxpayers get hit by the overruns, ratepayers get stuck with higher electricity costs, and shareholders get the Green.

Besides, should there be any real surprise that the plant isn’t likely to be any budget bargain? After all, wasn’t that the whole idea all along…run up the cost of fossil energy so high that it would even begin to make subsidies for stratospherically costly and unreliable wind and solar boondoggles appear competitive? Isn’t that what cap-and-trade was all about?

Clean Coal Carbon Capture and Release Craziness

Only the federal government and crony confederates could come up with a scam where we are forced to pay more to remove something that doesn’t really matter, use it for something else they are trying to regulate out of existence, and then release that same bad stuff into the air where it was supposed to be dangerous. Here’s how it works.

That Kemper County clean coal plant will convert low-grade lignite coal to gas for power generation and strip out much of the carbon dioxide to be sold for unconventional oil drilling. Through a method called carbon dioxide-enhanced oil recovery (EOR), Mississippi oil producers will then pump that CO2 deep into the oil fields to mix with the crude, decrease its viscosity, and cause it to flow more freely. Conventional drilling methods use water to accomplish this, although use of CO2 from other sources has gained popularity.

Getting that CO2 out of the coal and capturing it is the easiest part. Exhaust gas from coal burning is forced though a liquid solvent that absorbs the CO2. The solvent is subsequently heated to liberate the CO2 in much the way a bottle of carbonated soda releases dissolved CO2 when opened. The CO2 is then compressed to liquid form (about 100 times the normal atmospheric pressure) for storage.

That amounts to a whole lot of CO2 to capture and store somewhere (“sequester”). For example, a carbon capture and sequester (CCS) start-up operation at American Electric Power’s Mountaineer Plant in West Virginia captures a few hundred tons of CO2 daily. This is a small fraction of about 10,000 tons produced daily by a typical 500-megawatt plant. Now consider that America’s coal-fired power plants generate about 1.5 billion tons annually. Capturing that would mean filling 30 million barrels with liquid CO2 every day, amounting to roughly one and one-half times the volume of crude oil our country consumes.

The standard solution is to put that CO2 deep underground. Unfortunately, it won’t take long before the “A-grade” sequestration (or “geosequestration”) underground reservoir conditions in areas near power stations are filled at capacities. This will necessitate either extending to more leak-prone B, C, D and E-grade regions, or transporting the CO2 to better distant locations by pipelines.

All of this costs money…lots of it. First, it demands a huge amount of energy, requiring the coal-fired plant to burn about a quarter more coal to handle the sequestration while producing the same amount of electrical power. This is required to pay for capturing the CO2, compressing it, and transferring it for storage somewhere. The added fuel demand also expands necessary mining operations, coal transportation, and, unlike plant-nourishing CO2, the production of real pollutant byproducts, such as fly ash.

So here’s where the Kemper plant scenario comes in. Why not sell that CO2 to regional oil producers to cover, or at least offset, the transportation and sequestering costs, and in the process, save the planet as well? Well, there’s a catch, and it’s a biggie.

Why would anyone possibly imagine that the CO2 which will be pumped into reservoirs to access that oil will remain there for very long? Will all those many, many thousands of depleted oil reservoirs where the gas will need to be sequestered in order to offer any real CCS advantage be suitable for permanent storage? Who will be responsible for constantly monitoring them all for leakage? Even if decades passed before leaking out, would pumping all that money down a hole have accomplished anything, even if that CO2 capture and sequestration mattered one whit?

Stupid Surveys Stoking the Global Warming Coals

And how much does that CO2 that we’re supposed to be removing from the coal to drill the oil and then recycle back into the atmosphere really matter? Even if we never removed it, or it never leaked out of those money pits…would it make any difference to prevent that climate change crisis we keep hearing about?

Of course we’ve been repeatedly told that 97% of all climate scientists agree that carbon dioxide is causing unprecedented warming. Or at least it was until for some silly reason that only Mother Nature knows, She has caused global temperatures to flatten out over the past 17 years despite those rising CO2 levels.

Just for the record, I’m not aware of anyone who doesn’t believe that climate change happens… warming changing to cooling, then back again. Who can doubt that humans have “some,” albeit as-yet undetectable, influence? Theoretically, even flatulent ferrets must have some influence too.  But crisis?

As the late world-renowned atmospheric scientist Reid Bryson has observed: “Before there were enough people to make any difference at all, 2 million years ago, nobody was changing the climate, yet the climate was changing, okay?” He went on to say that all the argument about whether the temperature is going up or not is absurd. “Of course it’s going up. It has gone up since the early 1800s, before the Industrial Revolution, because we’re coming out of the Little Ice Age, not because we’re putting more carbon dioxide into the air. You can go outside and spit and have the same effect as doubling carbon dioxide.”

Regarding that endlessly reported claim that 97% of all scientists “believe in global warming,” some readers have accused me of suggesting in a previous article on that subject that the survey was either scientifically incompetent, or that it was dishonestly represented to the public. To eliminate any conceivable confusion, my real intent was to clarify that the survey was scientifically incompetent and was also dishonestly represented to the public…not an either/or matter….

Clearing the Air on Clean Coal Agendas

Whether or not President Obama buys into the carbon-caused climate crisis canard, has he really come clean regarding his true coal industry policy strategy? Perhaps remember that during a January 17, 2008, interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, as then-presidential candidate warned in pushing his cap-and-trade agenda, “So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted…That will also generate billions of dollars that we can invest in solar, wind, biodiesel and other alternative energy approaches.”

He went on: “The only thing I’ve said with respect to coal, I haven’t been some coal booster. What I have said is that for us to take coal off the table as a (sic) ideological matter as opposed to saying if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it.”

Candidate Obama also told the Chronicle editorial board: “Under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket. Coal-powered plants, you know, natural gas, you name it, whatever the plants were, whatever the industry was, they would have to retrofit their operations. That will cost money. They will pass that money on to consumers.”

It probably won’t be necessary to remind you, or the Mississippi Sierra Club either, that Barack Obama won that election, and a second one after that, or that he is determined to keep his original campaign promises. Although cap-and-trade got capped by a 2010 Republican House cleaning, he has worked wonders through a stream of federal government agency mandates and executive orders to carry out those goals.

While we depend upon coal for more than 40% of all U.S. electricity, the nonpartisan U.S. Energy Information Administration has reported a record number of coal-fired plant closings last year largely due to burdensome regulations and other compliance costs. They project that about 175 more are expected to be shuttered by 2016. EIA estimated that this amounts to a about 27 gigawatts of electricity – enough to power 27 million homes – must be replaced by other potentially more expensive forms of electricity.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity presents an even gloomier future for coal than the EIA projects. They predict that more than 280 coal-fired generating units are set to be shut down, partly due to stricter EPA regulations. And according to a report released by the National Economic Research Associates, seven new EPA regulations are expected to cost the electrical sector $16.7 billion per year, cause 887,000 job losses annually, and eliminate 69 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity.

A contingent of Democrat senators from West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota, and Louisiana sent a letter to President Obama asking him to reconsider new emission rules for coal-fired power plants which they argue will be ruinous to the industry. They wrote: “Such a requirement is unprecedented under the Clean Air Act and will have the unfortunate effect of preventing the construction of new coal plants or the upgrading of existing sources.” In regard to this issue, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has said “The EPA’s proposal unfairly targets the coal industry, and I strongly urge them to amend this overreach.”

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is also waging a war on oil and gas drilling through its EPA, Interior Department and an alphabet soup of other agencies, including: attempts to preempt state and private land rights; permitting complexities, delays and uncertainties on federal lands which discourage enterprise; punitive taxes on fossil fuels, and multi-agency regulatory threats against fracking.

As Dan Kish, Senior Vice President of the Institute for Energy Research in Washington, D.C., observed in interview I posted last March, the Obama administration’s apparent intent is to make heavily subsidized, unreliable and costly “renewable” energy programs they are pushing more cost-competitive. “This is the Tonya Harding approach to energy… break your opponent’s kneecap if you can’t win fair and square.”

So should it really be all that vexing for anyone, even for the Sierra Club, to wonder why electricity and fuel prices “skyrocket” as a direct result of those “green” alternative energy dreams they have aggressively championed? Wasn’t that the idea all along?

Yet, on the other hand, with regard to any misunderstandings between environmental organizations and the Obama Administration, there’s an additional possibility as well. Maybe that confusion has arisen from a circumstance where the left hand simply doesn’t know what the other left hand is doing.


A version of this article first appeared in Forbes Online.


  • Larry Bell

    CFACT Advisor Larry Bell heads the graduate program in space architecture at the University of Houston. He founded and directs the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture. He is also the author of "Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax."