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Cover Story

Cleaning up coal in West Texas expected to help fuel SA and wring out the oil patch

Photo: Photos by Greg Harman, License: N/A

Photos by Greg Harman

Photo: , License: N/A

Larry Pickerel of Legato Resources

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Summit Energy’s Laura Miller

Hovorka said the group assumed at first that since the CO2 had been injected for decades by a petroleum company under no obligation to make sure the carbon dioxide stayed in place that there would inevitably be some leakage. The other assumption was that if the CO2 was moving back to the surface it would first hit the aquifer, leaving traces of its presence in acidified water. They found none of that. "We like to say in a nuanced way, because we're researchers, that we don't know that there's no leakage," Hovorka said, "but there's no leakage there that has reached the aquifer at a detectable level." Investigations at SACROC continue.

Assuming the plant's water demands for between 4 and 5 million gallons per day are met (the DOE's environmental assessment talks about pipelining wastewater from nearby Midland, but company officials are now talking about building a desalination unit), the plant could be a winner.

What has critics of "clean" coal concerned is the potential for the movement to lead to the construction of a new generation of coal plants instead of an aggressive campaign to shut down or retrofit existing plants. "I hope carbon capture sequestration works. We need it," said Don Brown, associate professor of environmental ethics, science, and law at Penn State. "The real problem with it is, I think, that the same people in the coal industry supporting carbon capture and storage are fighting other forms of energy that could solve climate change.

"The scientists say that we're running out of time right now, that the whole world needs to reduce emissions by 25-40 percent to have any hope of stabilizing CO2 in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million. Unfortunately the coal industries are also fighting cap and trade."

That resistance to cap and trade hasn't blocked the coal industry from the federal trough, though. In the battle for subsidies, all energy sources have a place at the table — though some portions have gotten considerably larger in recent years thanks to President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Between 2007 and 2010, the total amount of energy-related subsidies climbed from $17.9 billion to $37.2 billion.

While presidential hopeful Mitt Romney would have us all believe the majority of the subsidies have gone into failed solar ventures, a la Solyndra, the biggest chunk of the pie in that 2010 buildout actually went to developing energy sources such as biofuels ($6.6 billion), wind power ($5 billion), and coal ($1.3 billion), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (Solar got $1.1 billion that year.)

And while solar proponents declined to take pot shots at coal's continued subsidies, a report prepared for the Solar Energy Industry Association by researchers at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee did their work for them by suggesting federal investment priorities may be skewed. "From an economic development perspective, a portfolio of incentives weighted towards mature industries will tend to insulate and maintain those profitable industries and suppress new industries, while a portfolio weighted towards industries in the adoption stage will tend to advance adoption of new industries," reads the report "Assessment of Incentives and Employment Impacts of Solar Industry Deployment."

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