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Some electric companies are experimenting with ways to burn coal without spewing greenhouse gases. But as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, they may need Congress to act before they can get this technology ready for widespread use.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: So far, there aren't commercial-scale technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the exhaust of coal-fired power plants. But some companies are trying to change that. Like Alstom, a French corporation that's one of the world's biggest manufacturers of the boilers and other machinery for power plants. It's working on small-scale projects to capture carbon dioxide.

Mr. PIERRE GAUTHIER (President, Alstom U.S. Operations): We have about 10 plants in six countries operating today.

SHOGREN: Pierre Gauthier is the president of Alstom's U.S. operations. Alstom's technology recently started isolating carbon dioxide at a West Virginia power plant. The carbon dioxide is then liquefied and injected a mile and a half underground.

It's a small project, but it's expensive. And if it were scaled up, it would use about a quarter of the plant's electricity just to strip out the carbon. Gauthier says its technology would use less energy and cost less if engineers could work out the bugs on full-scale projects. But he says that will take lots of subsidies.

Mr. GAUTHIER: Because today there is no policy in regards to carbon, which would be an incentive for customers to build these type of plants.

SHOGREN: Gauthier says what would really help improve the technology and make it cheaper would be a new law that limits carbon emissions. That would make it costly to pollute and create a demand for pollution controls. Alstom is one of a growing number of companies in the power sector that support climate legislation.

Here's the irony: a big reason many members of Congress say they're reluctant to restrict greenhouse gas emissions is that technology to capture carbon dioxide isn't affordable or commercially available yet.

Mr. DAVID HAWKINS (National Resources Defense Council): It is a policy catch-22.

SHOGREN: That's David Hawkins, who heads the climate program at the environmental group National Resources Defense Council. He says members of Congress from coal states are reluctant to support global warming legislation until they're sure carbon-capture technology will be cheap enough, so it won't hurt the coal industry or send the prices of electricity sky high.

Mr. HENRICK FLEISCHER (Founder, Sargas): It's a chicken and egg situation.

SHOGREN: Henrick Fleischer is the founder of Sargas, a Norwegian company that's also developing carbon-capture technology. He says the same dynamic is also delaying an international global warming treaty because leaders of many countries are reluctant to sign on before the technology is ready and affordable.

Mr. FLEISCHER: The big message for us to the politicians is that this is not something that is ready in five to 10 years. This is something we can start to build today.

SHOGREN: A growing number of power company executives are trying to persuade politicians that they might be putting the coal industry at a long-term disadvantage by stalling climate legislation. They've decided that restrictions on greenhouse gas pollution are inevitable. And carbon-capture technology is coal's only hope. Climate legislation would come with the carrots and sticks to make that technology a reality.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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