This is the third entry in a series of six email exchanges between two climate-change experts on the future use of coal. The series was originally posted here.

Editorial note: Mackler argues that the world lacks time for its leaders to navigate the political process necessary for a complete change of energy policy direction. Large-scale efforts to reduce carbon emissions are necessary now, and the energy industry is a good place to start because it is one of the largest carbon sources and because the technology to contain that source, at least in the short run, is available now.

Dear David,

Nice to hear from you. And sorry to learn that you’ve been hit by the flu. That sounds awful. I trust you and your family are back on your feet by now.

Lots of good points raised in your note. And especially interesting to me is the realization that I don’t find myself disagreeing with much of what you say and yet I remain convinced that we can and must develop low-carbon coal as soon as possible. As I respond here I want to touch on a few of your comments while also trying to make it clear why I think we can do this. My next response will focus on why we must.

I want to return to the main point on which we seem to miss each other, which is the nature of the problem we’re facing in climate change. The fundamental cause of climate change is in some sense both an energy engineering problem as well as a larger problem of philosophical proportions. Neither viewpoint is necessarily incorrect but they certainly lead to divergent societal discussions on solutions and, most importantly, wholly different timeframes upon which any responses are likely to emerge. Now you may accuse me of narrow-mindedness with my singular focus on energy — I do work for the National Commission on Energy Policy after all — but I think that this focus is critically important if we’re to take the necessary steps to avoid the impending climate calamity facing us.

I too am deeply concerned about our planet’s vanishing forests and darkening seas. There are indeed seemingly innumerable crises mankind is inflicting on the world, environmental and social. Addressing these existential problems, as you call them, is vitally important to our way our life and our ability to continue to inhabit this place. I couldn’t agree more. However, if we don’t start responding to climate change very soon, the rest of these problems will be exacerbated and quite possibly overwhelmed. My focus on energy is based not on philosophy but on arithmetic. It’s simply where the lion’s share of carbon emissions have come from and, importantly, where the future carbon sits. When I said previously that we must break old habits if we’re to successfully deal with climate risks, what I was really trying to say was that if we attempt to deal with climate as we have historically dealt with other environmental problems, we’re cooked. We simply haven’t got the time to push for the perfect solutions in 2030.

Engineering an energy solution would buy time and enable the larger discussion on how to more sustainably organize our society. As one of the more savvy political writers on environmental issues, I think you understand better than most the nature of the hurdles we face just in the energy domain. I see the continued skepticism toward climate science despite all the facts, I see the political obstacles in getting modest energy legislation through Congress despite endorsements from many key industrial sectors, I see the economy continuing to sputter despite soaring rhetoric on green jobs and plenty of money spent chasing them, and I get nervous. We need to quickly start building things that reduce carbon emissions while we figure out the longer-term answers.

The good news is that low-carbon coal technology is pretty much ready to go today. It’s true that lots of questions remain unanswered about its ultimate cost and performance. It’s also true that no commercial low-carbon coal power plant is in operation today. However, the most significant truth is that the technologies necessary are all out in the commercial marketplace today with decades of operating experience already in the books. The chemicals and refining industries have been gasifying heavy carbon products, including coal, for quite a long time in non-power applications. The oil and gas industry has been injecting CO2 underground for over 30 years to enhance productivity. True, these components haven’t been integrated in one facility for the purposes of electricity production but there’s very little question as to whether it can be done. We know it can. In fact, there are commercial projects being proposed today to do just this with warranties and customers lined up.

See the Texas Clean Energy Project for more information on one particularly promising effort. Of course there are other options for producing clean power, some of which have great potential in the long run. But in the next decade or two, there aren’t many tools available to us that can provide energy low on carbon and high on reliability. Climate friendly coal is a step in the right direction that is available today.

We should be getting serious about a lot of planetary problems and really putting the pieces in place for long-term solutions. In the meantime, we should be developing low-carbon coal. Transitioning coal from climate offender to climate neutrality certainly won’t resolve the myriad other problems caused by the coal industry (and believe me; I’m aware of most of them — see the study we sponsored last year — but it’s an on-ramp to the clean world we both want. Whether there’s enough coal for 50 or 250 years is somewhat irrelevant; there’s still too much carbon sitting underground in easy to reach places that we cannot let into the atmosphere. We have the technology to keep it out of the air, so by all means let’s utilize that in the meantime while we figure out how to keep the rest of it underground where it belongs.

More to say, but will have to wait till next time.

Best,
Sasha