The Energy 202: Trump did more for 'clean coal' in one week than in all of 2017

Tuesday , February 13, 2018 - 8:30 AM

Dino Grandoni

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

President Donald Trump often says he wants to bolster “clean coal.” So far, he has been more bluster than action. Often the president doesn’t even seem to understand what the term means.

Yet in a few short days, Trump has taken concrete steps toward bringing carbon-capture-and-storage technology, often called “clean coal,” into mainstream use. The White House managed to do more work on carbon capture in one week than it fit into all of 2017.

Carbon capture has caught the attention of lawmakers because it offers both parties - and the president - a way to achieve their political goals without compromising on basic beliefs. Some Democrats concerned about climate change push the technology as a way of reducing the release of greenhouse gases without imperiling jobs, even if some environmentalists worry about prolonging the use of fossil fuels. Led by Trump, the GOP has championed a new emphasis on fossil-fuel extraction, most prominently coal - and technologies like carbon capture allow such production to be done in a more environmentally friendly way. To boot, Republicans like how carbon dioxide can be pumped underground to unlock even more petroleum in a process called enhanced oil recovery.

It would seem to be a win-win for both parties and Trump’s budget reflects that logic.

On Friday, Trump signed a spending deal that included a new tax credit for projects attempting carbon capture - a process by which carbon dioxide is caught and stored underground instead of being released into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.

Then Monday, the White House released a budget proposal that restored funding to the Energy Department’s “clean coal” efforts. The Trump administration called for $502 million in funding for Fossil Energy Research and Development program, according to a summary released by the department.

That’s still a 20 percent cut from 2017 funding levels. Yet one year ago, the Trump administration was calling for the office’s budget to be slashed by a whopping 55 percent.

Dan Reicher, former chief of staff at the Energy Department, said the administration’s spending on carbon capture and storage would reinforce the new carbon-capture incentives.

It seems “the administration now realizes carbon capture and storage is a viable technology,” Reicher said.

Carbon-capture advocates hope the one-two punch of a tax break and a research bump puts the technology on the same path wind and solar energy started years ago.

“Combining DOE research that improves energy technologies with an incentive to deploy those technologies is a proven winning combination demonstrated by wind and solar power,” said Matt Lucas, an associate director at the Center for Carbon Removal.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said as much in his briefing to reporters on the budget.

“I think everybody who is in touch with reality will tell you that fossil fuels are going to continue to play a role in the future,” Perry said. “Our goal is to produce it more cleanly.” Perry noted that last year his department signed a deal with Saudi Arabia’s energy ministry to collaborate on carbon capture.

It should, of course, be noted the White House’s budget proposal is essentially a wish list of what the Trump administration wants the federal government to look like. Congress needs to consent to any changes.

Much of the rest of the proposed budget for the Energy Department mirrors what the Trump administration asked for last year.

The administration wants a 17.5 percent increase for the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the nation’s nuclear weaponry. It wants to cut funding to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) by two-thirds from 2017 levels. It wants to eliminate entirely the department’s tech incubator, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

And just like last year, many of Trump’s wishes for Energy are unlikely to come true. Both then and now, programs such as EERE and ARPA-E are just too popular among Democrats and enough Republicans in Congress to be maimed or killed.

But members of both parties are willing to support carbon-capture efforts, as demonstrated by the recent congressional spending deal.

So, on this one issue that Trump may get what he wants from lawmakers and energy policy.


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