Yesterday the US Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, gave a speech at the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. He is part of a cavalcade of high-level administration officials coming to Copenhagen in advance of President Obama’s participation in the high-level segment of negotiations next week.
Salazar laid out the administration’s standard line on climate change, asserting that “the United States understands the danger of climate change poses for the world” and laid out the vision of his department has for facing this challenge.
The Interior Department is a key government agency in addressing the climate problem due to the large amount of land that falls under its purview. Much of that land is in the Southwestern US in areas that could be ripe for renewable energy projects using wind and solar.
The most curious part of his talk was when he discussed “carbon capture.” He rightly mentioned the large swaths of forest land that need to be preserved to act as a carbon sink for sequestration and announced the release of a study by the US Geologic Survey that contends “the U.S. hypothetically have the potential to store an additional 3-7 billion metric tons of carbon in forests, if agricultural lands were to be used for planting forests. This potential is equivalent to 2 to 4 years of America’s current CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.”
But more troubling was his stance on the controversial practice of carbon capture and storage. This involves taking carbon emissions from a point source and injecting it into the ground to keep out of the atmosphere. This is largely an untested technology that hasn’t been implemented to any significant degree on a commercial scale. Issues like transporting the gassified CO2, and the permanence of its storage have not been adequately resolved. Coal companies, however, are counting on carbon capture and storage’s (CCS) viability to continue burning “clean coal” in a carbon-regulated environment.
Salazar was pushed by a questioner on the problems inherent in maintaining a coal-based energy policy given the problems with CCS. Salazar expressed confidence in the development of CCS technology and suggested that storage could occur on public lands. But this stance fails to look at the problems of coal extraction, which can disrupt landscapes and water quality when “mountaintop removal” techniques are used. Obama has been a consistent advocate of “clean coal” without, so Salazar’s position isn’t surprising. However, one would hope that the administration would take a more systematic analysis of CCS’ drawbacks.