Clean coal is crumbling

“If you don’t have a policy on carbon capture and storage, you don’t have a policy on climate change.” That was how one British government official characterised the central importance of CCS technology. If he was right, then the fight against climate change is in trouble.

Coal is the most plentiful fossil fuel, and the dirtiest. It is also the most readily available in big energy-hungry countries such as the US, China and India. One way or another, that coal is going to get burned.

The technology for “clean coal” – capturing the CO2 emissions from burning the coal, and burying them somewhere they will stay forever – is not particularly revolutionary. All the components of the process have been shown to work independently, but no-one has yet put them together and demonstrated that they can be commercially viable, given a reasonable cost of CO2 emissions.

Efforts to build a demonstration plant to do that have been running into problems worldwide.

The FT reports today that energy companies have been complaining about delays in the UK government’s competition to fund a commercial scale pilot plant.

The European parliament backed a plan for revenues from auctioning permits in phase three of the emissions trading scheme to be used to fund CCS projects, but that idea has stalled, to be replaced by a smaller sum shaved off the agriculture budget, which by itself would only back two or three pilot plants, not the 12 that the EU hopes for.

In the US, president Obama has reiterated his commitment to clean coal, but the FutureGen project, an ambitious CCS plan, is still pleading for funding.

BP and Rio Tinto, which have a joint venture investigating CCS, have cancelled a proposed project in Australia, and although plans for California and Abu Dhabi are still going ahead, the Abu Dhabi project has been delayed.

CCS is a business that is never going to make any progress unless it receives sufficient government support. If politicians are serious about it, they need to back their warm words with hard cash.

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