We’re gradually learning how the U.S. government will approach our country’s energy needs in the carbon-constrained future — and if you were envisioning a future free of mining the earth for dirty energy, you should probably check the optimism.

Same coal, same coal.

Photo: iStockphoto

Two important hearings on Capitol Hill earlier this month strongly indicated that we’re stuck with coal — and a coal industry generously supported by the American taxpayer — for the foreseeable future.

Coal industry representatives were invited to explain to key members of the U.S. House of Representatives why the federal government should ply it with hundreds of millions of dollars on top of the fat subsidies it already receives. Said Michael Morris, CEO of American Electric Power, “This is a willing industry, a willing company, a willing people who simply want to have a timeline to allow [carbon capture] technology to develop so that in fact we don’t just get a political sound bite, but we get something that works.” Well, OK, they want a little more than a timeline — namely, some sizable handouts.

The willing industry found in some a willing audience. Even Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s go-to guy on climate change, cast coal as an inevitable part of our energy future.

Morris was speaking at a Sept. 6 hearing held by Markey’s House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming focused on the role that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) will play in the future of coal power plants. Just one day earlier, the energy and environment subcommittee of the Committee on Science and Technology looked into the feasibility of coal-to-liquid (CTL) fuel technologies. This might all sound extremely technical and dull because, um, it is, but don’t zone out: it’s crucial to the shape of this country’s coming greenhouse-gas regulations, and therefore — no exaggeration — to the future climate of the planet.

Deploying either technology — CCS or CTL — around the globe within the next few years would require enormous subsidies. But there’s an important difference between the two. CCS technology at large scale is unproven and costly, and therefore high-risk, but if successfully developed at least it would result in a substantial decrease in carbon emissions. CTL, on the other hand, is proven and costly, a filthy technology that’s likely to worsen global warming and could turn out to be the biggest boondoggle in the sordid history of energy subsidies.

Do You Sequester What I Sequester?

CCS technology could be affixed to either newfangled IGCC coal plants or (in theory) existing coal-fired power plants to, yes, “capture” carbon pollution and then “sequester” or bury it underground, hopefully forever.

It’s a Strangelovian plan that demonstrates just how desperate we’ve become. With more time on our side — if sustainable energy hadn’t been so marginalized for so long by the very people now clamoring for subsidies to save the planet — we’d never go down this road. In an open, competitive market, with no distorting subsidies and with externalities priced in, cleaner technologies would have taken off long ago. But now the question is whether those technologies can get up and running and distributed around the world in time to limit global warming.

With markets for renewables still marginal (though growing fast), Markey seems inclined to throw a lot of money at CCS development. It “offers a path forward for coal,” he said at his hearing. “All indications are that CCS is a viable interim solution to the coal problem.”

That’s a major tell. Markey’s role with the select committee, as described to me by a Democratic leadership aide, is twofold: hammer the president for his intransigence on climate change, and advise John Dingell‘s House Energy and Commerce Committee on the shape that climate policy should take. (This latter undertaking is somewhat behind schedule; Pelosi initially called for climate legislation to be ready by July 4 of this year.)

Markey’s recommendations, with the de facto endorsement of the speaker of the House, will represent the most aggressive legislation that could come out of a Democratic Congress. If he believes CCS will be a critical part of the solution — along with enviros like David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Robert Sussman of the Center for American Progress, who were witnesses at his hearing — that tells you something.

Liquid Crunch

Big subsidies for coal-to-liquids technology look much less inevitable. CTL has plenty of boosters who argue for it on “energy independence” grounds, but many legislators, including the Democratic leadership, are skeptical, and enviros are vehemently opposed. (Barack Obama had to backpedal from his support for CTL after activists went on the attack.)

Turning coal into a synthetic liquid fuel for transportation requires running it through a chemical process that yields a great deal of carbon dioxide. If that weren’t bad enough, the fuel that emerges from the reaction contains more CO2 per unit of energy than does petroleum. So even if — and it’s a big if — CTL plants could be equipped with carbon capture and sequestration tools, we’d still be left with a heavily polluting, extraordinarily expensive source of energy for cars and other engines.

At the subcommittee hearing on CTL, Grist contributor Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and NRDC’s Hawkins were the only two voices speaking out against CTL subsidies. They were outnumbered by four pro-CTL witnesses — some unfortunate math. But subcommittee chair Nick Lampson (D-Texas) raised concerns about CTL himself, albeit in tepid language: “I also am aware,” he said, “that there are significant environmental challenges associated with using coal to produce liquid fuels.”

He went on, “I am also interested in the price implications of creating a second market for coal that will compete with coal’s use in electricity generation and in the projected lifespan of our coal reserves. We cannot build a coal-to-liquid industry overnight and nor should we fully embrace CTL technology as part of our energy strategy until we have thoroughly examined all of the relevant concerns and plotted our next steps sensibly and in a manner that puts our federal resources to good use.” That’s bureaucratese for “whoa nelly.”

The Science and Technology Committee shares jurisdiction with the Energy and Commerce Committee on the issue of climate change, and its recommendations will no doubt influence our national approach.

There’s an easy translation for all of this: For now, it looks like coal will continue to play a big part in the U.S. energy sector, CTL or not. Coal already supplies 50 percent of U.S. electricity, and there seems to be little will in Washington to push that percentage down. It’s the fullest expression of the industry’s political success over the years: having escaped strict regulation for so long by marginalizing critics and infiltrating our political system, coal arrives today at a critical moment when its old justifications are no longer accepted, but its enormity makes unseating it unthinkable if not impossible. It may be an unwelcome hegemony, but it looks like we’re stuck with it for now.