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April 2015 Brief: Volume 22, Number 11

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Can We Viably Capture CO2 From Power Plants by 2020?


by Deborah D. Thornton



The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June 2014 issued a proposed carbon dioxide (CO2) regulation under the Clean Air Act Section 111(d), called the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which calls for reducing CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel-based electricity power plants by 30 percent by 2030.[1] This is from 2005 levels and is broken out into individual state requirements. Most of these power plants are coal burning, and retrofitting and upgrading these systems over the next 15 years will cost the utilities – and consumers – billions of dollars.


Under the CPP proposal, existing power plants must limit their CO2 emissions to 1.1 pounds per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of production.[2] Currently the average is 2.14 pounds per kWh. The estimated cost to power providers to make the necessary equipment changes and upgrades is estimated by the EPA to be $50 billion annually.


The main way of attempting to reduce the CO2 emissions is through carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Currently, there is only one coal-fired power plant in the entire world which is successfully using CCS. Repeat – only one power plant successfully using CCS in the whole world. It is a government-owned facility located in Saskatchewan, Canada.


SaskPower’s Boundary Dam project came online in September 2014, after a $1.4 billion, and over budget, upgrade and retrofitting. The facility, located northwest of Minot, North Dakota, is the largest source of energy for Saskatchewan province. Key to the potential success is its location near Canada’s southern oil fields. The captured carbon is being piped approximately 40 miles by Cenovus Energy, which built a new pipeline specifically for this purpose, and used for enhanced oil recovery.[3]


“Enhanced oil recovery” is the technical term for fracking – something else which the environmentalists are opposed to and want to see stopped. According to a newspaper story about the opening of the new facility, unused CO2 will be “sequestered” or stored about two miles underground in a brine and sandstone water formation.[4]


Worldwide, there are only two other commercial-scale CCS projects even under construction. One is the Kemper project by Southern Company in Mississippi, and the other is the W.A. Parish Petra Nova project by NRG Energy near Houston, Texas.[5] Both projects are “under construction,” according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology CCS Institute, but are dealing with significant financial and regulatory roadblocks resulting in significant delays and cost overruns.


The Kemper project is now exceeding the original costs of $2.4 billion by $3.2 billion, with the total estimated final cost, after five years of construction, to be over $5.6 billion.[6] The W.A. Parish project will not start construction until the “end of 2016” and the captured CO2 will be shipped 82 miles by pipeline. Yet by 2020 – the EPA expects significant progress by all coal-fired energy plants in the U.S. towards having this technology in use.

The public comment period on the CPP rule ended December 1, 2014, and drew thousands of responses, lawsuits and joint statements, both pro and con, from every state in the union and a wide variety of business and special interest groups. The regulation is supposed to be finalized this spring, and state proposals of how they intend to comply are due between the summer of 2015 and 2016.


The EPA claims that this regulation will reduce monthly residential electricity bills by 8 percent by 2030, following an initial increase in electricity costs over the next six years.[7] The EPA also promises that “American families will see up to $7 in health benefits” (per year).[8] Given the Obama administration’s poor record on actually delivering promised cost and tax reductions and regulatory benefits, many are skeptical of the EPA’s claims.


The public health risks of CO2 supposedly alleviated by this regulation include heat stroke and heat-related deaths, smog and “some” particle pollution, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, rain, and flooding, and insect diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus.[9] Much of the global warming industry and these regulations are based on the premise that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and is bad for our atmosphere, irrespective of the fact that all green plants on the earth need CO2 to exist. In reality CO2 is a tiny part of our overall atmosphere (400 parts per million) and global warming predictions continue to be discredited.


Even if one accepts the premise that CO2 is bad and must be reduced, the track record of the government in reducing the costs of anything it regulates is poor. When the negative impacts are balanced against some nebulous potential benefit from a minor reduction in atmospheric CO2, it becomes apparent that the Clean Power Plan is significant overreach. If allowed to work properly, technology and the free market will eventually result in lower CO2 production by power plants. But a heavy-handed regulatory overreach with forced deadlines will result in little but higher costs for all.


[1] “Clean Power Plan, Reducing Carbon Pollution From Existing Power Plants,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, <> accessed on November 15, 2014.
[2] “Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Proposed Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, September 2013, <> accessed on November 21, 2014.
[3] “Boundary Dam Fact Sheet: Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage Project,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 23, 2014, <> accessed on November 29, 2014.
[4] Tildy Bayar, “First Commercial-Scale CCS Plant Comes Online,” Power Engineering International, September 29, 2014, <> accessed on November 29, 2014.
[5] “Large-Scale Power Plant CCS Projects Worldwide,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 23, 2014, <> accessed on November 29, 2014.
[6] “Kemper County IGCC Fact Sheet: Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage Project,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 19, 2014, <> accessed on November 29, 2014.
[7] “Clean Power Plan, Reducing Carbon Pollution From Existing Power Plants,” p. 22.
[8] Ibid., p. 4.
[9] Ibid., p. 6.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


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