WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and high-ranking administration officials met Wednesday with Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and the governors of other coal-producing states and announced a series of coal proposals in the hopes of shoring up support for the White House's beleaguered energy policy.
The administration pledged increased support for the creation by 2016 of between five to 10 commercial carbon capture and storage demonstration projects. The facilities would capture carbon emissions and store them underground, where they can't trap heat in the atmosphere.
The White House also announced a carbon capture and storage task force charged with figuring out how the nation can deploy the technology on a widespread scale within 10 years.
"Now, I happen to believe that we should pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill," Obama said Wednesday. " It will make clean energy the profitable kind of energy, and the decision by other nations to do this is already giving their businesses a leg up on developing clean energy jobs and technologies. But even if you disagree on the threat posed by climate change, investing in clean energy jobs and businesses is still the right thing to do for our economy. Reducing our dependence on foreign oil is still the right thing to do for our security. We can't afford to spin our wheels while the rest of the world speeds ahead."
During his meeting with the president, Beshear promised that Kentucky would aggressively pursue some of the carbon capture demonstration projects. However, the governor also stressed that both the state and the nation are heavily reliant on coal. Abrupt changes in regulations — such as a proposal that passed the House of Representatives to cap carbon emissions and fine companies that go over set limits — would balloon energy costs and cripple manufacturing industries, he said.
"I raised with the president the issue of the proposed cap-and-trade program pending in Congress and pointed out that in my opinion it would be counterproductive to the goals we all want," Beshear said. "It will drastically increase the cost of electricity in our state and other energy-producing states and drive industry not only out of our state but out of this country."
More than 90 percent of Kentucky's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. The state is the nation's third largest automobile manufacturer, produces 30 percent of the country's steel and 40 percent of its aluminum. The manufacturing companies that produce these products rely heavily on the state's cheaper energy rates, Beshear said.
Kentucky lawmakers have long pinned their hopes for an economic revival in Appalachia on a windfall in federal funding to capture and store carbon emissions underground. The method is seen as critical to efforts to convert coal to liquid fuels — a process that produces a significant amount of carbon dioxide that would be released into the atmosphere.
However, environmental experts say such efforts are highly dependent on two things: developing a way to safely capture carbon emissions from coal-burning plants and pump them underground, and the public's willingness to accept the high costs and environmental risks of producing that type of fuel.
Last year the Obama administration announced it was allocating $1 billion in funds to resurrect FutureGen, a proposal to create in Illinois the world's first coal-fired power plant designed to capture and bury carbon emissions underground. Kentucky was once a contender for the plant, which the Bush administration ultimately decided not to build, citing a cost overrun that pushed the price tag to $1.8 billion.
Energy Secretary Stephen Chu is expected to announce FutureGen's final approval this month.
The White House announcement on boosting cleaner coal energy comes on the heels of the administration's proposed budget cuts, which would slash roughly $2.3 billion in coal tax subsidies over the next decade — a move Kentucky lawmakers worry will mean heavy job losses in economically poor but coal-rich regions of Appalachia.
While most of the state's congressional delegation criticized the Obama administration's proposed cuts to coal tax subsidies, they were encouraged that the president is taking steps to advance cleaner coal technologies.
"I applaud the president's announcement, which is a good start in using technology to capture carbon," said Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles. "As we will need coal in the coming years, I think it is so important to look at ways to burn coal more cleanly and efficiently."
Chandler noted that the Kentucky delegation had written a letter supporting a power plant in Henderson County that would produce electricity by converting coal to synthetic natural gas. The facility would produce next to no mercury emissions and would capture up to 75 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions, Chandler said.