Obama Administration establishes Carbon Capture & Storage Task Force

Yesterday, President Obama issued a memorandum directing several of his department and agency chairs to come together and works towards a Comprehensive Federal Strategy on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

Under the memorandum, an Interagency Task Force is established, which is to be co-chaired by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Task Force is given 180 days to develop “a proposed plan to overcome the barriers to the widespread, cost-effective deployment of CCS within 10 years, with a goal of bringing 5 to 10 commercial demonstration projects online by 2016”.

The Administration’s assessment of the needs around CCS is right on the mark: CCS is recognized as one of the (many) key technologies needed to curb global warming pollution, and as a technology that is ready to begin commercial deployment today if the relevant regulatory and economic barriers are addressed. Established interest groups have vigorously been pushing an agenda of perpetual research & development in the area of CCS, as part of an effort to delay its deployment and thereby argue that climate legislation is ill-advised (because, allegedly, no carbon emissions control technology for coal – the nation’s primary electricity production fuel – is commercially available yet). Thankfully, the President seems fully aware of the broad scientific consensus (by bodies such as the IPCC and MIT) and agreement among key stakeholders in the industry sector and environmental groups, that CCS technology can begin safe and effective deployment today. His goal of ensuring that commercial demonstration projects come online by 2016 is therefore worthy. In practical terms, taking into account the siting, permitting, financing and construction logistics for such plants, this means that projects need to begin development... now.

The Task Force’s remit is clearly very broad. Specifically, it is asked to: 

  • explore incentives for commercial CCS adoption;
  • address any financial, economic, technological, legal, institutional, social, or other barriers to deployment;
  • consider how best to coordinate existing administrative authorities and programs, including those that build international collaboration on CCS; and
  • identify areas where additional administrative authority may be necessary.

These priorities again seem to recognize that the main barriers standing in the way of CCS deployment right now are economic and regulatory, with a view to addressing them as soon as possible.

On the incentive side, the memorandum gives the ultimate answer already: “[u]ltimately, comprehensive energy and climate legislation that puts a cap on carbon pollution will provide the largest incentive for CCS because it will create stable, long-term, market-based incentives to channel private investment in low carbon technologies”. This is something that NRDC and others have been arguing for some time now. Without a means to bridge the economic gap that CCS projects face today, deployment will remain from limited to non-existent. An economy-wide cap on emissions that sets a price signal on carbon pollution and provides additional incentives for CCS deployment in the early years is urgently needed.

In the meantime, as Congress enters the final stretch towards enacting such legislation, the Task Force has the potential to recommend and coordinate agency action on a number of remaining items that can affect CCS deployment. Such items include: 

  • Deepening cooperation with China and other key countries where low-hanging fruit CCS opportunities exist and where the U.S. can offer expertise and funding;
  • Improving our knowledge on the nation’s underground CO2 storage capacity, with specific focus and on-site characterization in key basins around the country;
  • Clarifying who owns the subsurface pore space where the CO2 will be injected, and devising fair and equitable means that enable developers to obtain such rights while safeguarding and rewarding the owners of those rights;
  • Clarifying leasing procedures and safeguards for CCS under Federal lands;
  • Finalizing regulations by the EPA to govern injection of CO2, and both safeguard groundwater and prevent any emissions to the atmosphere from injection sites, for all leading types of storage reservoir (this involves EPA exercising both its Safe Drinking Water Act authority and its Clean Air Act authority to set siting, operational, monitoring, verification, accounting, reporting and closure requirements for all of the following: deep saline formations, gas fields and oil fields); and
  • Ensuring that an appropriate entity is tasked with the stewardship of geologic sequestration sites after injection ceases and the sites are closed, and is adequately funded to carry out these duties.

So the announcement of Task Force is both timely and welcome. However, a word of caution is in order. The work of the Task Force must be transparent, inclusive, and not fall hostage to special interests. Moreover, there can be a tendency for task forces like these to produce a laundry list of topics that need to be addressed. It is important for this Task Force to confine itself to what is truly necessary and prudent, and not suggest the removal of “barriers” to bad regulation and irresponsible behavior. Only then will CCS be able to earn the public’s trust.