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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 04:58 pm

Honor system for air pollution?

Draft permit for coal plant doesn’t require carbon capture

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As state regulators prepare to issue a permit for a state-of-the-art “clean coal” plant planned for Taylorville, one environmental group criticizes the proposed permit for not specifically requiring carbon capture technology.

The Taylorville Energy Center project, planned by Omaha, Neb.-based Tenaska, Inc., would be the first power plant of its kind to capture a significant amount of its carbon dioxide emissions and “sequester” the CO2 deep underground. The plant would turn high-sulfur Illinois coal into a substitute natural gas, which would then be burned to power steam turbines.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) created a 138-page draft permit for the project in October and held a public comment period on the permit during December.

The Clean Air Task Force (CATF), an international nonprofit environmental group focused on reducing climate change, says IEPA’s draft permit doesn’t actually require the Taylorville Energy Center to capture and sequester carbon dioxide. John Thompson, director of CATF’s Coal Transition Project, says CATF supports the Taylorville Energy center, but only if it helps reduce air pollution.

“The problem is that we don’t see fossil fuels going away,” he said, adding that coal, oil and natural gas usage is expected to increase 50 percent in the next 35 to 40 years.  He says China is building on average about one new coal plant a week, and U.S. demand for power continues to outpace the capabilities of renewable energy resources like wind and solar.

The rapid expansion of coal as a power supply makes it all the more important to get Tenaska’s plan right, he says, because it could give regulators a benchmark against which to measure similar coal plants in the future.

“We support Taylorville because it’s a pioneer CCS (carbon capture and storage) plan,” he said. “It’s not enough to be a pioneer project that captures a significant amount of carbon dioxide. They need to also set the right precedent for a rational standard that the rest of the country can do.”

Christian County Generation LLC, Tenaska’s daughter company handling the Taylorville project, said in documents filed with IEPA that a strict limit on carbon at the outset could doom the plant. CCG intends to inject some of the plant’s carbon into on-site wells, while the remaining carbon would be sent elsewhere in a proposed pipeline that has yet to be built. If the wells or pipeline aren’t operational when the plant opens, it would fail to meet emissions standards, and the resulting fines would force the plant’s closure. The possibility of such a failure could even prevent the project’s backers from financing it, CCG says.

Thompson says a flexible standard should be included in the plant’s permit, so that emissions limits would become more stringent as the plant becomes fully operational.

“It’s a failure not to have a CO2 emission limit that doesn’t reflect (carbon capture and storage),” he says. “We think they can do this – get their plant financed, built and operate the way it’s supposed to – with a flexible limit.”

Dave Lundy, spokesman for Tenaska and CCG, says it ultimately doesn’t matter whether the project’s permit specifically includes carbon capture and storage. He points to several possible penalties that can be assessed against the Taylorville Energy Center if it fails to capture enough carbon dioxide.

One example, he says, is an automatic penalty of $20 million payable to the state for each year that the plant fails to capture 50 percent of its CO2 emissions under Illinois’ Clean Coal Portfolio Standard. The plant must capture more carbon – 65 percent – under an already-approved federal investment tax credit, or else Tenaska must pay back $417 million in federal funds. Additionally, Lundy says the Illinois Attorney General has the power to sue the plant’s owners if they fail to implement carbon capture and storage, while the Illinois Commerce Commission can reduce how much of Tenaska’s profits it gets to keep.

“The idea that we’re going to go to all these lengths, spend all of this money and gladly accept all these legal sanctions, and then go ahead and not do it (carbon capture and storage) doesn’t make any sense,” Lundy said.

On Nov. 29, the Illinois Senate approved a tax credit for the project valued at $8.7 billion over 30 years. The credit, contained in Senate Bill 678, has yet to be approved by the House, and previous versions of the bill have failed many times because of objections from environmental groups, business groups and competing energy companies.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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