A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

10 February 2018 — 1236 mst

45Q tax credits will not reverse coal’s decline

A generation ago, during the successful campaign to legislate a limited ban on phosphate detergents for the Flathead, the Soapers, led by Proctor and Gamble, argued, with straight faces, that instead of banning phosphates, we should remove them from the sewage before the effluent reached the Flathead River and Flathead Lake. Their premise — that it’s better to pollute and then clean up the pollutant than not to pollute in the first place — rightly provoked derisive guffaws, but one had to admire their chutzpah.

Today, the “pollute, then clean-up,” argument is being made by the people who dig and burn coal. Mine coal, they say, burn it, then capture the carbon dioxide and inject it into the ground, where it can’t function as a greenhouse gas. Not afraid to employ an oxymoron in support of their business, they call their burn and bury strategy “clean coal technology.”

Friday, they received a major subsidy when 45Q tax credits were included in the budget bill signed by President Trump:

Here’s how [the credits] work: Any new fossil-fuel power plant or carbon-dioxide producing industry that commences construction before 2024 is eligible for tax credits for up to 12 years (a time cap on the credits). The tax credits offered are per metric ton of carbon dioxide captured: $30 if the carbon dioxide is put to use (pushing out oil from depleting fields is the most popular use) or $50 if it is simply buried in underground storage. [Quartz.]

Senators from coal producing states, led by Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV), and including Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), supported the carbon capture tax credit.

Yesterday, the Montana AFL-CIO’s executive secretary, Al Ekblad, issued a statement thanking Tester for supporting the 45Q tax credit, and admonishing Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte for not supporting it.

Our members, who dig, transport, and burn coal to power America, now know for certain where their elected officials stand when it comes to protecting their jobs and communities.

Senator Daines and Representative Gianforte have spent a lot of time traveling to Colstrip and giving workers lip service, but when it came to actually investing in our state’s natural resources industries, they bailed on Montana.

Our members appreciate Senator Tester not only talking the talk, but walking the walk, as well. His persistent advocacy for carbon capture tax technologies have not gone unnoticed. Likewise, Senator Daines’ and Representative Gianforte’s failures will not go unnoticed.

The 45Q tax credits will not save Colstrip. Coal fired power plants are closing because natural gas is a less expensive, as well as less polluting, fuel than coal. But I’m cutting Tester some slack on this issue. He needs the support of labor, and labor supports politicians who protect existing jobs. I wish Tester wouldn’t kiss up to coal so blatantly, but if that’s the price of getting him re-elected, it’s well worth paying given the alternatives. And carbon capture is not an intrinsically evil technology.

Capturing carbon and keeping it from becoming a greenhouse gas is a technology for mitigating the greenhouse consequences of burning carbon containing fuels. If carbon based fuels must be burned, it’s best to use the fuels that require the least amount of mitigation. Burning methane is better than burning oil, and burning oil is better than burning coal, which is probably the dirtiest carbon based fuel that exists.

But it’s best to avoid technologies that require carbon capture mitigation. Instead of polluting and cleaning-up, don’t pollute in the first place. That’s why carbon capture cannot make Colstrip a good thing for our environment.

It’s not just that burning coal generates more carbon dioxide than methane. Mining coal wrecks land (so called reclamation is mitigation, not restoration) and pollutes water and air. Coal fired power plants produce huge heaps of ash. They emit particulates and other unpleasant substances in addition to carbon dioxide. There’s nothing about coal technology that’s clean. And ever if there were, Colstrip, given the way it’s been operated, never would be the poster plant for clean coal.