The “Holy Grail” of carbon reduction. A silver bullet to help solve the climate crisis and at the same time help protect politically important mining jobs in critical swing states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia.

The advanced billing and expectations for “clean coal” have been anything but modest.

Global hopes remain high, despite some funding and technological setbacks — and increasingly loud skepticism from some corners. The Obama administration, in partnership with industry and many top researchers around the nation, is barreling ahead to try to make it happen. So too is the Chinese government.

Expert Science, Technical, Policy Voices
On Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) clearly is among the most important pieces in the climate change “mitigation” puzzle. Yet it is likely the most uncertain, with its timing and success contingent on a dizzying array of technical and financial factors.

And so, for many, the climate for reporting and analysis on CCS remains murky.

“[C]oal and its political friends would like us to go into this without our eyes wide open, and that doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me,” Ken Ward, Jr., veteran environmental reporter for the Charleston Gazette (W.Va.), told The Yale Forum recently.

A Bone for Big Coal? Knowing the Unknowns

Lisa Margonelli, a leading energy writer and director of the New America Foundation’s Energy Policy Initiative, said careful scrutiny is warranted in terms of following the money in this arena.

“As far as how journalists assess this — it needs to be looked at from the geological, the financial, the political, and the environmental standpoint, and those particular aspects need to be contrasted with one another to understand why it seems so attractive to the [U.S. Department of Energy], or why it’s being funded the way it is,” Margonelli, author of “Oil on the Brain,” said in an e-mail interview. “Is this a bone being thrown to the coal and ethanol industry to bring them on board with climate regs? Is it just a bone?”

For Ward, one of the country’s most dogged journalists covering all things coal, CCS is more than an abstract concept. In West Virginia, the heart of coal country, the promise of CCS — whether or not it can extend an indefinite lease on life to an industry that many want to go away — is a vital issue.

Ward, who writes the paper’s “Coal Tattoo” blog, has produced in-depth reports like his feature “The Great Race: Coal vs. Climate.” He’s one of the few daily journalists consistently giving attention to this often-arcane sector that seems a thick brew of big money, big government, big industry, and cutting-edge science.

“The science seems pretty clear to me that it’s not entirely certain this technology will work on the scale that is needed, in a financial picture that anyone is willing or able to pay, or as safe as communities where it’s going to be happening might expect or demand,” Ward wrote in an e-mail interview. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s part of the picture that readers, especially in coal-producing areas, need to know more about. We’ve seen lots of very, very optimistic predictions from coalfield politicians like [West Virginia Democratic Senator] Jay Rockefeller, but the science doesn’t back up those wild claims. People need to know the unknowns.”

Few Big News Events

There is continued sparring over cost, technology, scalability, global feasibility, infrastructure capacity, political will, and public acceptability for storage, among other things.

The challenge of CCS: Where will the CO2 associated with combustion of this coal coal end up?

Due attention to the latest research and a fine-tuned spin detector are key in this terrain, observers say. But it gets tricky fast. There is a different calculus for many facets of the complex picture: for example, evaluating the plusses and minuses of retrofitting existing coal-fired power plants, or post-combustion capture, is quite different from evaluating the building of new “coal gasification” plants that perform pre-combustion capture. For retrofitting, there remain significant hurdles in terms of effectiveness and efficiency; and it will take a long time to build new gasification plants across the globe.

Moreover, there is general acceptance that putting a price on carbon is perhaps the key step in making CCS viable. Otherwise, the investments might be better spent on wind and solar, smart grids, and efficiency. Cost-benefit calculations rest on unknowable future political choices.

As with climate science and atmospheric research, there are few “big headlines” for journalists to grab — beyond the latest round of research and development funding — and few obvious breakthroughs so far. Many of the dozens of pilot projects around the world are still years away from furnishing a decisive verdict. The uncertainty is reflected in the relative paucity of reporting on this field — as the drip-drip of “news events” seems a series of false starts, small steps forward, and new verdicts on whether CCS should even be a goal at all.

New York Times Op-Eds come out occasionally under tussling titles like “A Bad Bet on Carbon” and “The Dirty War Against Clean Coal.” The emerging research produces reports that support many different positions on feasibility and cost. Highly touted pilot projects such as Illinois-based FutureGen have been portrayed as glittering moonshots and jaw-dropping boondoggles within a single calendar year. FutureGen — dubbed by detractors as “NeverGen” — has been funded, unfunded, and funded again.

In the background of the intramural CCS debates remains a haunting notion, too, for many greens and environmentalists: Is this all just a ruse by the fossil fuels industry to postpone radical change and true clean energy? For several years now, media outlets have talked of a giant greenwash, or “Scrubbing King Coal.”

China Not Going Away

Still, neutral, nonprofit, academic-oriented observers maintain CCS can be done, and done effectively, to help stop human-induced climate change.

“The technical and timing challenges of full global deployment of CCS are significant but not out of league with similar engineering efforts humanity has already made,” Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force (CATF), told The Yale Forum. “We made a roughly similar scale up for world oil production over a few decades, and sequestering all annual U.S. power plant CO2 would require handling about as much fluid annually as underground wastewater injected each year in Florida. The projected costs are not out of line with a variety of other lower carbon generation options like wind, nuclear, and certainly solar.”

No doubt, CCS will be crucial in the prolonged debate over how to combat climate change. In 2007, IPCC said it expected CCS to play a role in the climate solutions quest on a par with renewables and efficiency.

CATF’s Cohen puts it this way: “[T]here is simply no way to tackle the global problem without addressing CO2 from the 40 percent of the planet’s electricity that comes from coal — and especially the U.S.-sized coal fleet that China built in the last five years, with much more on the way in China, India and elsewhere. Those Chinese plants are not going away anytime soon, nor are the rest of the world’s newer plants, which are the vast majority.”

(It’s worth noting that the Wall Street Journal recently reported that some officials in China have serious doubts about CCS, despite the country’s intensive research.)

Of course, deep in the heart of U.S. industry and government there remain true believers. As part of a $1.4 billion project dedicated to CCS research, the U.S. Department of Energy continues to make large grants tied to huge, parallel private investments. In July alone, DOE bankrolled six new industry projects, to the tune of $104 million. $25 million for mineralization scrubbers in Texas. $24.2 million for carbon-fed micro algae in Ohio. $18.4 million for CO2-infused plastics in Ithaca. The list goes on.

Storage Leaks … and Public Education

Moreover, exactly how safely the carbon can be stored, of course, is as controversial as ever.

CCS boosters say the capture part isn’t rocket science; it’s auto mechanics. And for those worried about sequestering carbon in the ground — and the prospect of some violent rupture and release — there are those who respond by saying it’s really just a matter of understanding basic geology and soda water.

Margonelli said that the issues of CCS and safety show just how important public education is. Of course, journalists are on the front lines of sorting out the truth on this thorny issue, with no certainty available.

“Engineers who work with it say you can pretty easily tell if a formation is leaking,” Margonelli said. “However, the public education about this stuff has not kept up. And as a result you have groups of people protesting trials of what is not particularly toxic technology on the grounds that if corporations want it and it can’t be seen it must be bad.”

Which is all to say that CCS could “succeed” technologically, but lose local battles with citizens who don’t want massive carbon deposits in their back yard.

But as many point out, the future of CCS is not just a local or even a particularly American issue, per se.

“[I]f CCS can be made to work, it will be a huge help in dealing with climate change, at least according to the experts I talk to and read about,” Ward, of the Charleston Gazette, said. “Especially given the huge amounts of coal likely to continue to be burned in the developing world, that’s important to consider as well.”

Expert Science, Technical, Policy Voices
On Carbon Capture and Sequestration

For journalists seeking expert insights into the science and technology of emerging carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), a small handful of academics and researchers might comprise the very best independent sources:

Sally M. Benson is the Director of the Global Climate & Energy Project, GCEP, at Stanford University in California. She is a professor (research) in Stanford’s Department of Energy Resources Engineering, School of Earth Sciences, where she focuses in particular on carbon dioxide subsurface or geological formation storage. The author of more than 160 scientific publications, Benson is a member of the American Geophysical Union, the Society of Petroleum Engineers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Association of Petroleum Geologists. E-mail:

Howard J. Herzog is a Senior Research Engineer at M.I.T. in Massachusetts. His sponsored research addresses energy and environment, with an emphasis on greenhouse gas mitigation technologies. He was a coordinating author of IPCC’s Special Report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, released in 2005, and a co-author of M.I.T.’s Future of Coal Study, issued in March 2007. He has been a U.S. delegate to the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum’s Technical Group. E-mail:

Edward S. Rubin is Alumni Professor of Environmental Engineering and Science and Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. His research deals with energy and environmental technical, economic, and policy issues, with an emphasis on reducing environmental impacts of electric power systems, and on modeling and assessment of CCS options. He serves on National Research Council committees addressing climate change mitigation policies, and he is a winner of Carnegie Mellon’s Distinguished Professor Engineering Award. E-mail:

Jim Dooley is Senior Staff Scientist, Joint Global Change Research Institute,
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, located in College Park, Md. Dooley leads the Institute’s and the Global Energy Technology Strategy Project’s research related to CO2 CCS. He and his research associates have authored more than 120 technical reports and peer reviewed articles on the role of technology in addressing climate change. Dooley was both a Lead Author and the Cross-Cutting Chairman for Market Deployment for IPCC’s 2005 Special Report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage. He is Associate Editor for the International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control, the first peer-reviewed journal focusing on CO2 CCS. E-mail:

In addition to these technical and scientific research experts, another individual widely recognized as having substantial expertise on CCS policy, legislative, legal, and regulatory issues is Natural Resources Defense Council’s David Hawkins. Hawkins directs NRDC’s climate center in Washington, D.C. Long one of the nation’s most respected air quality experts and activists, he has worked for NRDC since 1971 except for the years he served as a Carter Administration EPA appointee overseeing its air, noise, and radiation office. While the experts above are unlikely to agree with Hawkins on all issues (or for that matter among themselves on all issues), Hawkins is well regarded among these experts. E-mail:

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...