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World agency urges storing carbon emissions underground

Excavators load waste coal into trucks near Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, in January 2005.
Excavators load waste coal into trucks near Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, in January 2005. Scott Hamrick / Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT

WASHINGTON — One of the best ways to make deep cuts in the pollution from fossil fuels that's warming the planet is to capture emissions from factories and power plants and bury them deep in the Earth, but the world's industrialized democracies are spending "nowhere near" the money needed to get the first carbon-capture projects started, the International Energy Agency reported Monday.

The United States and other G-8 nations should spend about $20 billion in the next decade to add the technology at 20 large-scale demonstration projects in order to work out problems and cut risks, the IEA said.

It argued that the work is urgently needed because the world is expected to rely on increasing amounts of coal, oil and gas in the decades ahead, and emissions will grow 130 percent by 2050 under current conditions. In contrast, there's strong international agreement that emissions must be cut in half or more by 2050 to prevent temperature increases that could bring dangerous long-term climate disruption.

The presidential campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama support federal spending for carbon capture and demonstration. Both also have committees dedicated to supporting the continued use of coal, the source of half the nation's electricity and a source of jobs in swing states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The IEA, which promotes cooperation on energy policy among the United States and 27 other member countries, said that government support was needed in the early stages because carbon capture and storage reduced a plant's efficiency and added to its costs. Private financial investment also is crucial, it said.

There are four demonstration projects under way for carbon capture and storage, none of them in the United States and none at a coal-fired power plant. Two of the projects are Norwegian, one is in Canada and another is in Algeria.

Most of the world's leading industrial countries have programs to promote the commercial use of carbon capture and storage. But the report says that costs have increased significantly in the past five years, and many projects have been canceled or scaled back.

The U.S. Department of Energy pulled the plug in January on FutureGen, a planned $1.5 billion joint investment of government and industry, because the costs ran higher than expected.

Obama's energy plan calls for the federal government to provide incentives to speed private-sector investment in commercial-scale coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage. He's called for public-private partnerships to develop five such plants.

McCain has called for $2 billion in federal funds spent annually until 2024 on "clean-coal research, development and deployment." He isn't clear about how much of that would be used for more efficient use of coal in plants without carbon capture and storage, but he's indicated that some of the money would be for carbon-capture demonstration plants.

The IEA report examines the prospects for carbon capture and storage and concludes that eventually it will be a cost-effective way to reduce about 20 percent of the emissions from industry and electricity production. A delay will make the costs greater in the future, it warned.

The agency predicts that fossil fuels will remain the main source of the world's energy in 2030. It also finds that 84 percent of additional carbon-dioxide emissions will come from the use of fossil fuels, and that the bulk of the increased emissions will be from developing countries.

The IEA said that the 20 full-scale demonstration projects should include industrial plants, such as cement and steel factories, and power plants, including some retrofits of existing coal-fired power plants.

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