The road to Kyoto runs through Illinois
If President-elect Barack Obama is serious about curtailing U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, he may find that his biggest hurdle is his home state of Illinois. For Illinois is one of the top greenhouse gas engines in the country, if not the top one, and the development plans backed by the Democratic Party establishment will increase the production of climate changing gases.
Illinois’ claim to the greenhouse gas title rests on its dependence on two of the dirtiest sources of fossil fuel energy: coal and tar sands.
According to the U.S. government’s Energy Information Agency, coal-fired power plants produce approximately 34 percent of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere in the United States, and Illinois is fifth in the nation in coal power generation. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, has pushed coal power as the key to the state’s economic future.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Electric Technology Laboratory reported that during the Blagojevich administration, Illinois has entertained more proposals for new coal-based electric power plants than any other state. The proposed plants approved by the state government would account for more than 10 percent of the generating capacity of all proposed coal-fired power plants nationwide. Environmental groups have contested many of those approvals before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and federal courts.
And while three of the five top coal power generating states – Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas – are reducing their reliance on coal, lllinois’ dependence is increasing. Electricity from coal projects moving forward in Illinois will increase the coal power generation capacity in that state more than 20 percent.
A recent decision by an appeals board of the U.S. EPA could steer the president-elect into an early confrontation with his home state. On November 13, 2008, the Environmental Appeals Board, an independent body of adjudicators within the Environmental Protection Agency, ordered the agency to consider whether to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants before it approves construction of new coal-fired power plants. The decision came in response to an appeal from the Sierra Club of EPA permit for construction of a new coal-fired power plant in Utah. Carbon dioxide is the most common of the greenhouse gases.
Sierra Club Chief Climate Counsel David Bookbinder said the decision will delay construction of any proposed coal-fired power plant in the U.S. by at least a year. It puts pressure on the new Obama administration to either reverse course or proceed to regulate industrial carbon dioxide releases, not just from power plants, but also from petroleum refineries and other industrial facilities.
The appeals board based its ruling on a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year in Massachusetts v. EPA that declared that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.
What is Clean?
As a Senator and candidate for president, Obama supported “clean coal.” Blagojevich likewise portrays his energy policy as advancing “clean coal.”
A spokesperson for Blagojevich’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Marcelyn Love, said,“Coal is very important to Illinois’ economy, and will be even more so in the future.”
In 2002, Illinois initiated a Coal Revival Program, which provides grants to assist with the development of new, coal-fired electric power plants. In July 2003, Blagojevich signed legislation that expanded the program by offering $300 million in state-backed bonds to help finance the construction of “advanced technology” coal-fueled projects. Two years later, he signed legislation that expanded the program to include coal gasification plants or integrated gasification-combined cycle plants. On Oct. 12, 2006, he announced $3 million in state grants to help Power Holdings of Illinois, LLC develop a plant to produce synthetic gas from coal.
The governor has billed every coal-fired power plant supported by his administration as “clean.” He called the 1,600-megawatt Prairie State Energy Campus under construction in Washington County in southwestern Illinois, for example, “among the cleanest coal plants in America and a model for new generation.” He said the 630-megawatt Taylorville Energy Center uses “cutting edge clean-coal technology” and “is a great example of how we can grow our economy and create good paying jobs while protecting our environment.” Love said those plants are central to the governor’s energy program.
The Sierra Club, however, has derided those power plants as “dirty.”
“We think the trend to add to the coal fleet is a very frightening trend,” said Becki Clayborn, regional representative of the Sierra Club. Even though proposed coal-based power plants would spew less sulfur and nitrous oxides into the air than older plants, “that doesn’t mean they are the cleanest plants around,” she said. And, “they do not do much about carbon dioxide, and that is a problem,” she said.
The Sierra Club started its national campaign against coal in Illinois, “because more plants were proposed in Illinois than anywhere else,” Clayorn said. “We are at a crossroads,” she said, “either we continue adding to global warming problems or we look for alternatives.”
Although the Taylorville Energy Center would not burn coal, but would instead turn coal into a synthetic gas and then burn the gas to generate electrical power, Clayborn said it “does not address CO2 emissions at all.”
“One of our main concerns about adding coal plants without shutting down old ones is that you are just adding to CO2 emissions. If a plant does not have a mechanism to deal with the CO2 problem, it should not go forward,” she said.
That’s a concern shared by the National Resources Defense Council. According to Shannon Fisk, staff attorney with the National Resources Defense Council’s Midwest Office in Chicago, “If we are building new coal plants, we must have binding commitments to capturing and sequestering CO2 emissions, the best control of other pollutants, and a serious look at the mining practices of coal,” he said.
Illinois’ other greenhouse gas problem comes from its reliance on synthetic oil produced from bitumen extracted from Albertan “oil” sands in Canada. Seventy-five percent of Alberta’s bitumen production, about one million barrels a day, flows through Chicago. And ConocoPhillips has begun a $4 billion project to move another 300,000 barrels a day directly to a refinery downstate in Wood River, Illinois.
The problem, industry sources agree, is that extracting bitumen from the ground and upgrading it to produce petroleum products currently releases about 50 percent more greenhouse gases into the air than producing the same volume of products from conventional crude oil. Since most greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline come from burning the fuel in car engines, however, not from refining it, they are quick to add that the “global” addition to greenhouse gas emissions is about 15 percent.
Mining and upgrading bitumen produce more greenhouse gases than pumping and refining crude oil for one simple reason: because it takes more energy. Adam Brandt, a researcher in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California in Berkeley, likened the process of making gasoline from bitumen to reverse refining. “Upgrading [bitumen] is like turning asphalt into gasoline,” he said. The typical refinery is basically a set of distillation chambers, he explained. A refinery basically boils and collects condensates of petroleum to get different useful products, gasoline first, then diesel fuel, and so on, moving from the lightest products to progressively heavier one “until you are left with a heavy sludge that is used as road tar,” Brandt said. “The oil sands are like that very low quality, heavy sludge,” he said.
Joule Bergerson, a professor at the University of Calgary, whose research was funded by the Canadian government, said about half of the greenhouse emissions in producing gasoline from oil sands comes from the upgrading process, the process of turning road tar into gasoline. The half comes from extracting bitumen from the ground. Simply put, miners either strip mine the ground and melt bitumen out of the sand in a factory with very hot water or boil water to make the steam that they inject into the ground to melt bitumen in the ground so they can pump it out. It is the burning of natural gas (methane) to either heat or boil water that generates most of the greenhouse gases in the extraction process.
According to Michael Wang, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, greenhouse gas emissions will increase as the industry grows and tries to extract harder-to-reach bitumen, unless they find an environmentally friendlier power source.
In 2008, the Canadian government, which has adopted the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases, “declared that there will be no knew oil sands plants or refineries without installing carbon sequestration and capture,” Bergerson said, explaining that the declaration meant that any plant starting operation in 2012 or later must capture and store any carbon emissions. It was assumed that industry could afford the controls as long as the price of oil remained above $100 a barrel, she said.
Oil companies, however, have not shown a lot of interest in building refineries with carbon capture and storage in Alberta, instead preferring to convert existing refineries in the United States, where there are no regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. According “It is more economical for existing refineries, which are closer to markets and have facilities to make a range of final products, to complete the processing of synthetic crude oil, rather than duplicate those facilities in Canada,” explained ConocoPhillips in a written statement. A U.S. government decision to regulate carbon dioxide could change that equation.
After the Environmental Appeals Board ruling in the Utah power plant case, coal, oil and electric companies in Illinois, and environmental groups, are waiting to see what definition of “clean” President Obama will embrace. — Peter Downs (firstname.lastname@example.org)