The Great Green Lie: CCS Today Is Not Like Scrubbers in the 1970s (Part II)
As noted in Part I, EPA’s 1971 sulfur dioxide standard was based on the application of wet scrubber technology. However, most utilities found it was cheaper to meet the standard by switching to low sulfur coal, rather than install expensive wet scrubbers.
Consequently, during the 1970s, demand for low sulfur coal skyrocketed. Western states, primarily Wyoming and Utah, benefitted; eastern coal producing States in Appalachia and the Ohio River valley suffered.
In Congress, lawmakers from eastern coal producing states sought to redress the economic harm resulting from fuel switching precipitated by EPA’s sulfur standards. Their solution was to require scrubbers at all new coal-fired power plants.
If utilities had to install sulfur controls, these lawmakers reasoned, there would be no incentive to switch to low-sulfur coal. (Of course, this is an absurd waste: From an environmental standpoint, there’s no benefit if a utility installs wet scrubbers and also switches to higher sulfur coal. But that’s a different story of legislative sausage-making. See, generally, Bruce Ackerman & William Hassler, Clean Coal Dirty Air, 1981)
EPA executed this scrubber mandate on June 11, 1979, when it published revised sulfur dioxide emissions standards for new coal-fired power plants in the Federal Register (44 FR 33580). For this determination, there was no question whether wet scrubbers were commercially viable. There was, however, a question as to the commercial viability of “dry” scrubbers, a less water-intensive flue gas desulfurization system developed in the mid 1970s.
At the time, there were zero commercial dry scrubbers in operation at power plants, and utilities had closed financing and commenced construction on dry scrubbers at three power plants representing 1,350 megawatts (44 FR 33594). Notably, none of these projects received federal subsidies.
Despite the considerable evidence that dry scrubbers were an emerging technology in 1979, EPA did not find that the technology met the commercial viability threshold as required by the Clean Air Act. In its review of the regulation, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that dry scrubbers were not “adequately demonstrated,” and, therefore, could not be the basis of New Source Performance Standards to control sulfur dioxide from power plants.
How the Great Green Lie Backfires on Proponents of the Carbon Pollution Standard
In the table below, I’ve summarized the information presented above, comparing EPA’s Carbon Pollution Standard with the agency’s prior sulfur dioxide standards for new coal-fired power plants.
Clearly, the contemporary status of CCS technology is a poor parallel to the development of wet scrubber technology in 1971, at which time the latter technology was market mature. However, CCS does compare well with the status of dry scrubber technology in 1979. Currently, CCS has been installed on zero power plants, although it isbeing installed at a 540 MW power plant in Mississippi. Dry scrubbers, by comparison, in 1979 were being installed at three power plants (representing 1350 megawatts).
Let’s elaborate on this CCS-dry-scrubber analogy, which is indeed apt. According to a February, 1980 survey by EPA, dry scrubbers were being readily embraced by the market, without subsidies. The agency noted:
“With regard to process development, there does not appear to be a need for EPA to fund programs aimed at the development of sprayer-dryer based technology since a significant amount of commercial interest currently exists in these systems…[N]umerous vendors of dry processes are devoting large research budgets to the development of sprayer dryer-based FGD systems, and it appears that this technology will be developed regardless of EPA involvement.”
For CCS, the opposite is true: The technology is so nascent and expensive that no utility would undertake it absent generous government subsidies. In fact, the only CCS project in the U.S. to close the necessary financing was aided by $270 million in Energy Department direct grants, and another $170 million in tax credits from the I.R.S. Without these taxpayer handouts, the project would never have broken ground.
The evidence indicates that dry scrubber technology was much further developed in 1979 than is CCS today. For starters, there were more dry scrubbers being installed then relative to CCS now. More importantly, the market actors were adopting dry scrubber technology of their own volition, whereas this cannot be said for CCS.
With this in mind, it is telling that EPA considered dry scrubber technology extensively in its 1979 sulfur dioxide standards for new power plants, yet the agency declined to determine that the technology was “adequately demonstrated” (i.e., commercially viable). The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals was more explicit in a 1981 decision (Sierra Club v. Costle, 657 F. 2d 298 (D.C. Cir. 1981)) reviewing the sulfur dioxide standard, in which it found:
We feel compelled to state, so that there is no suggestion that the standard has been relaxed, that we do not hold that dry scrubbing is adequately demonstrated technology. Indeed, the record in this case would indicate the contrary.
Because dry scrubbers were not commercially viable in June 1979, they were an impermissible basis for a NSPS for new coal-fired power plants. In light of the evidence presented in this post that dry scrubbing more advanced in 1979 than CCS is today, the Court’s reasoning is an ominous precedent for proponents of the Carbon Pollution Standard.
Thus, the great green lie actually undermines the argument of those that speak it.