Friday, October 31, 2008

Economic Opportunities for Pittsburgh in Clean Coal

Could energy history repeat itself in Pittsburgh?

Just over 50 years ago, the first commercial nuclear power plant in the world was constructed here in southwestern Pennsylvania by Westinghouse. Our initial leadership in advancing a new energy technology made Westinghouse the global leader in the field, and it is now constructing new nuclear plants around the world. That, in turn, has created major economic development benefits for the region, as Westinghouse creates a thousand new jobs and builds a new headquarters facility here.

Today, one of the major energy challenges facing the world is creating cleaner energy from coal. Concerns about global warming have led to demands for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, particularly from coal-fired power plants. There is now broad agreement that it is impractical to eliminate or even significantly reduce the use of coal in the foreseeable future, and instead the priority should be finding ways to reduce the CO2 emissions that coal plants produce.

The most promising approach is what is called “carbon capture and sequestration” – capturing the CO2 before it enters the atmosphere, piping it to a storage location, and injecting the CO2 into the ground (“sequestering” it) permanently. The first two of these steps – capture and transport of CO2 – are already used commercially in other parts of the country for enhancing recovery of oil and gas from wells. The third step – sequestration – has been pilot-tested on a small scale, but not yet on the scale needed for a typical power plant. However, even long-term underground storage is not a new concept – there are already large underground storage facilities for natural gas both here and in other regions.

Just as with nuclear technology, the region that pioneers the implementation of production-scale carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology will likely be the region that reaps the economic rewards of that expertise in the future if the U.S. puts limits or taxes on CO2 emissions and when countries like China and India finally seek ways to reduce CO2 emissions from their coal plants. Southwestern Pennsylvania is well-positioned to be that pioneer because of a unique set of assets: many of our thousands of former oil and gas wells are “underground brownfields” that can be reused for sequestration of CO2; the proximity of those storage locations to major CO2 generation sites minimizes transport costs; and we have some of the best energy and environmental expertise in the world at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and West Virginia University.

However, as important as they are, these assets are not enough. State government needs to create a clear legislative and regulatory framework that enables private investors to pursue CCS projects. Two things are particularly important: (1) the state should enable the use of the geologic structures under state-owned gamelands and parks as sites for carbon sequestration; and (2) the state should provide a system for dealing with liabilities associated with sequestration, analogous to what the federal government did in the early days of the nuclear power industry. Other states are already working to put appropriate legislation in place, and the Pennsylvania General Assembly needs to move quickly if we are going to maintain a leadership position.

Wouldn’t it be safer to sit back and let other states take the lead? Although there are always risks in any new technology, any risks of CCS are far less than the risks the region took in being the guinea pig for the first nuclear power plant in 1957. The economic opportunities are significant – CCS projects can create hundreds of construction, engineering, and other jobs here now, and many more in the future as we market our expertise around the world. And since our region is home to some the largest CO2 emission sources in the country, we will have to face up to the issue sooner or later.

The Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh ( is working in partnership with 3 Rivers Clean Energy ( to educate public officials about CCS. You can help, by urging your state legislator to pass legislation supporting implementation of carbon capture and sequestration projects in southwestern Pennsylvania before this major economic development opportunity passes us by.

(A shorter version of this post appeared in the October 31, 2008 edition of the Pittsburgh Business Times.)


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