Can carbon sequestration save Virginia’s coalfields?

Mountaintop removal coal mining

Mountaintop removal coal mining

Many elected officials who care about the stark challenges confronting America’s coal-producing regions today are pinning their hopes on carbon capture and sequestration. This technology takes carbon dioxide out of power plant emissions and stores it underground. Since coal is the number one emitter of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for heating the planet, carbon sequestration might be the only way to continue our use of coal in a world increasingly worried about climate disruption.

Virginia’s newly-elected governor, Terry McAuliffe, has high hopes for carbon sequestration. McAuliffe is confronting a problem that confounded his predecessors: how to deal with the continuing economic decline of southwest Virginia’s coal-producing counties. But, enthusiastic as he is about new technology, McAuliffe should be skeptical of suggestions that carbon sequestration offers a solution to Virginia’s coal decline. It does not.

This decline has been going on for decades. It predates the recession and the Obama presidency and tighter regulations aimed at protecting public health. It predates the explosion in natural gas fracking that has made gas cheaper than coal. Coal employment in Virginia has steadily dropped and is now below 5,000 workers, less than half of what it was in 1990. The best coal seams have been mined out, exacerbating the problem that Virginia coal is more expensive to mine than coal from other states. To get at the remaining seams as cheaply as possible, coal companies increasingly resort to mountaintop removal, destroying vast tracts of the Appalachians with explosives and giant machines (but very few workers). Even if carbon capture and storage proves successful, coal employment in the commonwealth won’t recover.

We aren’t the only Appalachian state facing this problem, but others are tackling it head-on. Kentucky, facing an even steeper decline in its coal-producing areas, has launched a bipartisan effort to help the region move beyond coal. This doesn’t mean they are happy about it, but they are willing to look facts in the face.

In Virginia, on the other hand, the response for some years has been to throw money at the coal companies and hope for the best. Virginia taxpayers shell out millions of dollars every year to corporations that mine Virginia coal. Legislators keep renewing the coal subsidies even though a 2011 review by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee concluded they aren’t effective.

If throwing money at coal companies can’t halt the slide in Virginia coal, it’s hard to see how carbon sequestration technology could do it, even if the government were to pay for it. And given the environmental destruction involved in mountaintop removal mining, prolonging the end of the coal era in Virginia shouldn’t be anyone’s priority.

The start of a new administration offers a chance for a new strategy. Admittedly, it won’t be easy. The challenge of bringing new industries to a remote and mountainous region is a tough one, and support for coal still remains high in the area. Why, then, insist on confronting cold reality?

Because it has to be done.

Terry McAuliffe campaigned on jobs, and has given every indication he means it. Given his background, connections and talents, he is in as good a position as any governor in recent times to take on the challenge of helping southwest Virginia diversify its economy. He can work with the legislature to redirect the millions of dollars currently going to ineffective coal subsidies into tax credits for jobs in new industries and support for projects like home weatherization that create jobs and make a difference in people’s lives. He can challenge the entrenched interests, twist arms, enlist allies, recruit businesses, use the media—in short, make this a priority. The residents of the coalfields deserve as much.

The trouble with natural gas

Natural gas was supposed to be the answer to all our energy dreams. It’s produced in America, cheap, plentiful, and guilt-free, like the fuel version of Diet Coke. In the dream, it is a lifeline for struggling family farms that can make money leasing their mineral rights. It will wean us off dirty coal for generating electricity, and yet be so cheap that poor people don’t have to be cold at night. It will power the American manufacturing renaissance. It will bring down carbon emissions and stop global warming from happening, making it the savior of the whole world, including Greenland’s glaciers, the coral reefs, the polar bears, and civilization itself.

The new technique of natural gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling, or “fracking,” has unlocked vast supplies of methane trapped in shale formations across the country, driving down the price of natural gas to historic lows and promising a supply that the government estimates will last 92 years at current consumption levels. Electric utilities have been switching from dirty coal to “clean natural gas” at record rates.

But instead of ushering in a future of boundless clean energy, natural gas has been setting off alarm bells all over the country. First, there are those family farmers and other landowners who leased their land for fracking and now say it has contaminated wells and surface water, polluted the air, killed farm animals, ruined crops, and made their lives a living hell with all-day, all-night truck traffic.

The heck with them. They signed contracts. Caveat greedy landowner, right?

Let’s offer a little more sympathy to their neighbors who suffer the consequences without getting lease payments. But keep in mind that the gas industry denies all charges. None of this happened. Or if it did, the ruined water wells were due to naturally-occurring methane or other chemicals in the area, and it is an unlucky coincidence that the pollutants reached hazardous levels in the drinking water aquifer shortly after a gas company drilled down through it en route to the natural gas thousands of feet below, with impenetrable rock layers in between.

I once heard a gas industry lobbyist inform a room full of conference attendees that it was impossible for a fracking operation to contaminate drinking water. I was reminded of the way the computer geeks in college used to insist there was no such thing as a computer error. “I’m sure you’re right,” the rest of us would answer humbly. “Now can you help us recover the data?”

At least the computer geeks would then get busy fixing the bugs so that the next time the system crashed, it was from an entirely different cause. Gas company lobbyists have been stuck at denial, and it has only done them damage with the public. Admitting to a bad well casing seems far preferable to driving a now-widespread belief that methane is migrating up through rock fissures caused by fracking.

As for the other complaints—the 24-7 truck traffic, extra air pollution from operations, polluted wastewater, and occasional surface spills—the response from the gas industry and its friends has been that this is the price of progress. Industry is not pretty. Get over it. Who entitled you to a quiet life in the countryside?

But another alarm bell has been ringing, and it gets progressively louder. This one warns that drilling for natural gas, far from being the answer to climate change, may actually be making it worse. The problem is one of  “fugitive” emissions, which sounds vaguely criminal and exciting, but simply refers to the small percentage of natural gas that escapes into the atmosphere at drilling sites. Methane, the major ingredient of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that is much shorter-acting than carbon dioxide but twenty-five times more powerful. If recent analyses prove correct, the amount of methane that escapes during the fracking process may be enough to make natural gas worse than coal as a driver of climate change. This is especially unhappy news given that natural gas integrates well with more variable energy sources like wind and solar, and environmentalists had been counting on it to help in the transition to a future powered mainly by renewable energy.

The trillion-dollar question is whether all these problems are inherent in natural gas drilling, or whether the gas companies could solve them if they put their minds to it. After all, wind energy companies have shown they can be responsive to environmental concerns and still grow as an industry. Environmentalists have turned from being the biggest critics of wind energy to its biggest advocates. There’s no rule saying gas drillers have to stonewall, or that the companies with the best operations have to support those drillers whose operations threaten communities and the climate.

Drilling companies don’t want methane to escape, obviously, because that is lost revenue for them. But neither do they seem to be making heroic efforts to monitor and prevent fugitive emissions. A few companies have been using innovative approaches to solve other problems, however. One has developed a method that uses propane as the fracking fluid, saving millions of gallons of fresh water for every well. The propane returns to the surface with the gas to be reused in a virtuous cycle.

Unfortunately, this method turns out to be more expensive than using water, which is often free if you grab it before anyone else realizes they might need it. So while you have to admire the elegance of the propane solution, you can’t really expect any self-respecting capitalist to adopt it just because it is better for society in general.

The same is true of an experimental approach that uses CO2 as the fracking medium. When water is the medium, most of what is injected remains underground permanently. CO2 seems to behave the same way, suggesting that the fracking wells might be able to sequester enough carbon underground to offset much of the CO2 that is emitted when the gas is burned. Coupled with carbon capture technology at plants burning natural gas for electricity, this technique would significantly lower the carbon footprint of natural gas. Whether it is enough to offset the problem of fugitive methane emissions is unclear.

But CO2 is already used in oil extraction, and drilling companies can’t get enough of it as it is, because carbon capture is expensive. Sure, it’s not as expensive as adapting our coastal cities to rising sea levels caused by climate change, but that’s a cost to society; carbon capture is a cost to industry. Any gas company or utility that adopts more expensive methods than its competitors, just because it’s better for society, won’t be around for long.

Capitalism can’t solve this problem alone, or any of the other pollution issues posed by natural gas extraction. Nor are individual states able to regulate practices effectively, because companies that face higher costs in a well-regulated state will move to states with more lax regulations in order to retain their competitive position.

The only effective answer is for the federal government to impose a set of best practices that apply to all members of the industry nationwide, so the good actors aren’t placed at a competitive disadvantage. The requirements would include extraction practices that minimize the risk of groundwater and surface water contamination, reduce air pollution, and prevent the escape of methane into the air. They would provide for monitoring and analysis, so regulators and industry would know where, when and how to take corrective measures. They would also cover the consumption end of the cycle, requiring carbon capture technology for all new fossil-fueled electric generation, and ensuring that the costs to society are borne by the industry.

This isn’t a radical idea, by the way. It is how we used to approach industry-wide problems, back before fossil fuel lobbyists reframed regulation as a dirty word that meant we were no longer a free people. The natural gas industry is now in a hugely dominant position over other fossil fuels. They can afford to implement rigorous best practices across the board and still retain a competitive edge. They should be lobbying to make them universal, not fighting efforts to regulate.

The alarms bells are growing louder. Will the gas industry rise to meet the emergency, or just keep trying to cut the wires?