Scrub that Stuff Right Out of the Air

Energy Environment

New Orleans     A Biden Administration EPA rule is coming down the pike which could be great news for the climate and the air we breathe, especially coupled with some other initiatives.  The nation’s power plants are once again in the gun sights.  The target is reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the 3400 coal and gas-fired generators by 2040.  All of this is a good thing, but, frankly, it is confusing to me and maybe to others, because I’m not sure exactly what’s up when they talk about “scrubbing” the emissions out of the process.  I also understand that there are arguments about how effectively the job gets done, but one problem at a time.

I’m not driving in my normal lane, but it is a path I’ve traveled with ACORN fifty years ago when we were involved in an epic campaign – our first with national impact – in opposing the construction by Middle South Utilities, now Entergy, of the White Bluff Power Plant in Redfield, Arkansas, between Pine Bluff and Little Rock.  The proposed plant was to be the world’s largest coal-fired operation, running on one-hundred coal cars a day, that would be replaced eventually by a water driven slurry line from the Fort Union deposits in Wyoming to Arkansas.  All of this likely sounds preposterous now.  ACORN opposed the operation before the Public Service Commission on a host of grounds, mainly about pollution, especially the amount of sulfur that would be dumped on neighboring fields and all the guck particles that would foul the air.  We enlisted allies, made a mess with the biggest investors, Harvard, Princeton and the like, and demonstrated with our members, both urban and rural, whenever and wherever.  The plant was built at about half the proposed size and is actually scheduled to be retired soon after fifty years, but to bring this story full circle, we wanted them to install scrubbers, but we didn’t win that.

Were these scrubbers the same being touted now to do this job?  Yes, and no.  Mainly, they were intended to get rid of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which is one of the greenhouse gases, but the main objective now is carbon dioxide (CO2).  The scrubbers they are talking about now are similar, but are more about carbon capture.  There are about 360 scrubbers of every kind on the coal and gas-fired plants now, so hardly 10%, and only 20 of those are these carbon-capture designs, so this is a mountain to climb.  This fight is no longer just about coal, since there are only 224 operating coal burners in the US now, way less than 10%.  In short, all the carping aside, this rule, if it makes it past the political and legal gauntlet, would be huge.

The industry claims that the carbon-capture operation is not ready for prime time, which sounds identical to their arguments about scrubbers fifty years ago.  There have been scientific advances that seem to answer that objection, but a lot of it is a smokescreen.  It’s really about money and the cost of installing them.  No flies on the Biden team.  They’ve sweetened the pot for industry with subsidies and tax credits, and, in cases like our old nemesis, White Bluff, have indicated that if the plant is headed for the mothballs, they’ll look the other way.  I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer, but all of this seems like a huge step in the right direction for all of our power plants, especially since the industry alternative seems to be doing next to nothing.