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Coal fuelled the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago, and coal is still used to make more than a half of the electricity used in the United States. Burning that coal produces carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that's warming the planet. A new report says if we want to keep burning coal, we'll need to figure out how to get the carbon dioxide out of smokestacks before it gets into the atmosphere. It also calls on the government to do more to help figure out how to trap and store all that carbon.
Here's NPR's Christopher Joyce.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology there's a bunch of scientists who've been working on this carbon dioxide problem for years, including Howard Herzog. At first, he says, getting rid of carbon dioxide was just another scientific puzzle. Then the size of the job started to come into focus.
Mr. HOWARD HERZOG (Research Engineer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): The world puts out over 25 billion tons of CO2 a year.
JOYCE: That's four tons for every man, woman and child on the planet on average. Americans produce a lot more than the average though, and that started to get to Herzog.
Mr. HERZOG: When people look back, the Iraq war is going to be a distant memory. It's not going to be on the radarscope, but they're going to be at the front lines fighting climate change. So they're going to look back and say, what were these people thinking? You know, how could they leave the world in this shape?
JOYCE: Herzog and his colleagues at MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment don't want to leave a mess behind. They have just finished a careful study of ways to trap and store CO2 so it doesn't get into the atmosphere. It's called carbon sequestration.
Some people are skeptical that sequestration will work, but the MIT team says there are several plausible technologies that could work. Some involve stripping the CO2 out of the combustion gases in a conventional coal power plant. Others wouldn't burn coal at all, but turn it into a gas, making it easier to strip off the CO2.
But then, where to put it? Daniel Schrag has an idea: under the seabed. Schrag is a geoscientist and climate researcher at Harvard University.
Mr. DANIEL SCHRAG (Geoscientist and Climate Researcher, Harvard University): When you inject it under the ocean floor, into the sediments, the CO2 will literally want to sink, not rise. And so it would stay there forever, geologically speaking, or millions of years at least.
JOYCE: Under thousands of feet of water and then hundreds of feet of sediment, the CO2 would be cold and compressed, heavier than water. Theoretically, it wouldn't rise. Ocean burial wouldn't work everywhere though. In Kansas, for example, it would cost too much to pipe the CO2 to the ocean. But Schrag says our industrial society could theoretically bury all of its CO2 under the seafloor.
Scientists will have to prove it won't leak back out though. Schrag says no one can do that with 100 percent certainty, but what's the alternative?
Mr. SCHRAG: Frankly, slow leaks is a whole lot better that what we're actually doing today, which is complete leakage. We're just putting the CO2 into the atmosphere.
JOYCE: One company is already burying CO2 under the seafloor - Statoil, Norway's biggest oil company. Engineers there have been stripping CO2 from oil and gas pumped by an offshore platform in the Nordic Sea, and then pumping it back down. Here's what Statoil engineer Michel Myhre-Nielsen says about carbon sequestration.
Mr. MICHEL MYHRE-NIELSEN (Engineer, Statoil): High uncertainties, big risks, and also very, very large investments.
Mr. MYHRE-NIELSEN: Then again, you have the environmental consequences of emitting CO2. So that's sort of pointing in the direction of doing something.
JOYCE: Another incentive, a big tax that Norway levies on offshore oil and gas operations for emitting CO2. In the U.S., power companies are worried about how much sequestration might cost them. It isn't cheap.
Sean Plasynski is the sequestration technology manager at the U.S. Department of Energy. Right now, he says, taking carbon dioxide out of coal could raise electricity costs by 50 percent or more.
Mr. SEAN PLASYNSKI (Manager of Sequestration Technology, U.S. Department of Energy): The big issue is driving down the cost. We have several technologies that we are looking at with the ultimate goal of driving those costs down to around 10 percent of an increase in the cost of electricity or lower.
The MIT studies says it's too soon for anyone, especially the government, to pick winning technologies. So it says DOE needs to spend more time and a lot more money trying to figure out what might work. Then says, MIT's Herzog, let industry take over.
Mr. HERZOG: The important thing is to do our due diligence and say, is this a good way forward?
JOYCE: But all these scientists say is this, alternative sources of energy are inevitable, but coal isn't going to disappear soon. So far, sequestering coal's unwanted CO2 underground could be a solution if scientists can figure out how to do it.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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