John Edwards
John Edwards.
Photo: kk+ via flickr

One of the most meaningful steps the U.S. can take to fight climate change is to forbid construction of new coal plants unless they capture and sequester their carbon emissions. If we allow more dirty coal plants, all our other efforts will be in vain. That’s why James Hansen and Al Gore return to the subject so often.

Dem presidential candidate Chris Dodd has called for such a policy in blunt language: "The Dodd Plan requires all new plants to capture and sequester CO2. No exceptions."

Most enviros seem to think that John Edwards has also called for such a moratorium, and have lauded him for it.

Only he hasn’t.

Edwards would require that all new coal plants be compatible with sequestration — that they be IGCC plants, which make CO2 easier to separate and bury — but he would not require them to actually sequester their emissions.

Is this worth worrying about? Yes. As Big Coal author Jeff Goodell says, "There is a big difference — a rhetorical Grand Canyon — between supporting coal plants that are ‘compatible with’ CCS and actually requiring them to do it."

The key thing to note is that IGCC plants emit 80-90% as much CO2 as old-school dirty coal plants (they are somewhat more efficient). An IGCC plant without sequestration is almost as bad as a dirty coal plant, from a climate-change perspective (though it emits less NOx, SOx, and mercury).

If we build a bunch of coal plants — whether they’re IGCC or not — we will be committing to sequestration (if we’re to have any hope of slowing global warming). It’s either that or shutting them down. So if President Edwards requires energy companies to build IGCC plants, he will have done very little to slow global warming. What he will have done is lock us into a policy path we’ve never rationally assessed or chosen.

If we do what Dodd advocates, we’ll have at the very least an interlude of 5-10 years in which we can assess our options moving forward. We can compare the net costs of IGCC plants + sequestration with the cost of nuclear, renewables, efficiency, etc. We can choose the most rational allocation of our limited public capital, investing in the options that are cleanest and cheapest.

Again, if we immediately start building a bunch of IGCC plants, we will have irrevocably committed to CCS. We will have to make it work, no matter how much public money it costs. We’ll be committing to a massive, nationwide, taxpayer-funded infrastructure project without ever deciding through open debate that it’s the best use of our resources. We’ll have done it because the coal industry and coal politicians told us that there’s so much coal we "have to" use it — even if it turns out to cost more than cleaner options.

If Edwards is serious about climate change, he will follow Dodd and support a ban on coal plants that don’t have operating sequestration facilities.