U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney recently joined a handful of other Congress members to advance the “Storing CO2 and Lowering Emissions Act.” Gov. Mark Gordon followed quickly with a letter to Congress offering his support for the so-called SCALE act.
Some may find this action of Wyoming politicians encouraging. But let’s not hold our collective breath waiting for SCALE to make a dent in our current economic problems.
I hate to be the dog in the manger just as many claim carbon capture technology might save coal and Wyoming’s economy. But to suggest to families in Kemmerer or Gillette who are worried about being able to stay in their homes until their kids graduate that SCALE will help them quickly enough to make a difference is cruelly misleading.
First, the bill does not directly affect coal-fired plants, but instead aims to add infrastructure for transporting and then storing carbon emissions in the ground. That may seem promising, but coal fired plants play only one part of the carbon capture equation — and likely the least important part for SCALE. In fact, the word “coal” does not appear once in the 46-page bill.
Cement and steel plants also emit massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, and while we have alternatives to high-carbon electrical generation, such as wind and solar, we don’t have the same low-emission alternatives to making cement or steel. As a result, SCALE is likely to focus on providing infrastructure for those industries instead of coal-fired plants.
Second, SCALE offers us millions when we need billions. SCALE authorizes roughly $65 million per year for R&D, transportation, and storage infrastructure. That may seem like a lot of money, until you consider that the oil and gas industry spends twice that amount every year just entertaining Congress through lobbying efforts.
SCALE also authorizes $500 million per year for commercialization programs. That also needs to be put into perspective. I’m an owner of an oil and gas pipeline logistics company, and a reasonable estimate we use for building this type of pipeline is $75 per foot. That means a mere 100 miles of pipeline would cost $40 million. Which is why estimates to build the Keystone pipeline eventually added up to $8 billion. Five-hundred million per year wouldn’t likely go very far.
Project Tundra, the only active carbon sequestration project in the country, has a price tag of $1.3 billion and will require an additional $3 billion in subsidies to be economically viable — and that’s only for a single plant. Just to keep up with current coal plant retirements would cost nearly $100 billion in construction and tax subsidies alone.
Third, the bill itself is unlikely to pass for years. That’s just how things work in Washington, D.C.
There is also this consideration: Given the approval process for pipelines and how long such projects take to construct, building a national CO2 pipeline infrastructure would take at least a decade under the most promising assumptions — not much help for a Wyoming family worried about this month’s mortgage.
Let’s also remember that building a pipeline and finding locations to store the CO2 is the easy part of carbon capture. The harder part is retrofitting coal plants with carbon capture technology. If Project Tundra in North Dakota gets off the ground, it’s expected to take a minimum of four years to build. But we’re in a race against time. In the four years it will take to bring Tundra’s 450 megawatts on-line, we’ll have retired 27,000 megawatts of existing coal capacity — the equivalent of 50 Project Tundras.
The SCALE Act may serve a useful purpose in our broader energy strategy. For that Rep. Cheney and Gov. Gordon should be applauded for their vision. But building out CO2 infrastructure is long-term stuff, and we can’t be allowed to believe that help is around the corner — we’ve been burned by that in the past and should know better.
Nothing contemplated in the “Storing CO2 and Lowering Emissions Act” will solve the emergency facing our state, and any effort to create false hope only allows us to postpone making hard decisions while our coal communities suffer. Let’s cheer on SCALE, while getting back to solving our local problems.