Reducing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has been the talk of town for awhile now, but uncertainties remain on how to best do it without completely devastating an already crippling economy. One of the biggest challenges is how to burn coal, which provides 50% of America’s electricity, without emitting CO2.. At present time, the most viable option is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

The goal of CCS is to capture carbon emitted from coal burning generation facilities, compress it, transport it, and store it in sealed geologic formations, but when this process becomes commercially available is unknown. The US House Committee on Science & Technology had a recent hearing addressing the topic.

CCS sounds like a great solution for cutting out much of the questionable emissions from coal plants. So much so, that the US government is betting highly on its success. Much of the House hearing was spent grilling the Department of Energy representative about why the Department cut funding last year for the FutureGen advanced coal program. The GAO reported at the hearing that FutureGen was not cut because of budget overruns. Congressman Costello voiced his “outrage” at the program being cut, and blamed it on politics rather than cost.

Regardless of the DOE’s rationale for cutting the program, or Congress’ ultimate decision on FutureGen, CCS may not prove to be magic fix for carbon emissions. The Economist reports that “CCS might not be financially worthwhile for years to come.” The uncertainty and expense of future carbon regulation “has doubtless put off utilities. Omar Abbosh, of Accenture, a consultancy, says that carbon trading as practiced in the EU and contemplated in America does not give enough certainty about future carbon prices to justify an investment in a CCS plant. [Philippe] Paelinck of Alstom agrees: no board would risk spending €1 billion ($1.3 billion) on one, he says, without generous subsidies.”

In the same issue, the Economist writes:

The private sector, however, is reluctant to fork out not just because of the upfront cost of power plants, but also because, tonne for tonne, CCS looks like an expensive way of cutting carbon. The cost of it may fall, but probably not by much, given the familiarity of the technologies it uses.”

Even so, energy development companies are already responding to the promise of a future market place for CCS technologies. General Electric, for example, has introduced the Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC), which uses coal gasification to make the capturing CO2 easier should plants with IGCC decide to do so in the future. Similarly, the Babcock and Wilcox Company has developed the oxy-coal combustion technology that “uses pure oxygen for the combustion of coal in electricity generating plants. In this system, nitrogen that comes in with the air for the combustion process is eliminated. As a result, the exhaust gas is a relatively pure stream of CO2 that is ready for capture and sequestration or alternate uses such as enhanced oil recovery.”

Whether we should implement carbon reduction schemes in the United States is a different fight, but if the government is to set caps on CO2, it will be the market and the private sector that create the most efficient solutions.