Matt Dempsey (202) 224-9797 - Inhofe

David Lungren (202) 224-5642 - Inhofe

Garrette Silverman (202) 224-3353 - Voinovich


Legal Barriers Blocking Significant Increases in Efficiency at Existing Coal Plants

Link to Report


Washington, DC—Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), released a report today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the status, cost, and reliability of current carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology for coal-fired power plants.  Based on GAO’s survey of stakeholders, including utilities and state regulators, current CCS technology would increase electricity costs by 30 to 80 percent, reduce electricity output between 15 and 32 percent, and increase water consumption at power plants. 

GAO also found that commercial deployment of CCS in coal plants over the next 10 to 15 years presents “significant challenges.”  In the meantime, legal barriers are blocking efficiency gains and lower emissions, at existing coal-fired power plants.  Also, ultra-supercritical coal plants, the construction of which is opposed by environmental groups and the Obama Administration, can achieve one-third fewer CO2 emissions than average coal plants. 

Senators Inhofe and Voinovich released the following statements:

Inhofe: “I support advancing cleaner, more efficient technologies to produce electricity, but we must recognize that CCS technology is far from mature.   Attempts to force it into existence through a massive cap-and-trade tax, hoping it will work at a reasonable cost without an appropriate legal framework and without the infrastructure needed to support it—that’s simply irresponsible public policy that will burden consumers with higher electricity costs and threaten America’s energy security. 

“GAO’s report also shows that lawsuits and regulatory barriers are preventing the realization of significant gains in efficiency at existing power plants.  What’s more, GAO notes that new, clean, ‘ultra-supercritical’ coal-fired power plants can reduce CO2 emissions by 33 percent relative to the average coal plant.  Yet environmentalists, and the Obama Administration, have made the conscious decision to block their construction.  This is rich in irony: it’s a policy blocking environmental progress, economic growth, and the job creation the Administration is hoping for.”

Voinovich: “This study underscores my concerns with attempts to impose severe near-term reductions in CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Simply put, the technology doesn’t exist to meet these mandates while maintaining an affordable and reliable base of electric power. 

“Those that look to the Acid Rain Program and hope that we can take that law’s trading program and simply ‘scale it up’ are failing to recognize that reducing CO2 emissions is fundamentally different than any other environmental challenge we have undertaken.  With the Acid Rain Program, sources could comply by installing off-the-shelf technology.  That’s not the case with CO2.

“But this is why I’m advancing policies to advance CCS and other clean energy technologies through focused commercialization and deployment efforts.  Indeed, such policies can be used to incentivize technology and reduce emissions without the huge societal costs that would be incurred by ‘pricing’ or taxing carbon.”

Highlights from the GAO report: 

  • In addition, nearly all stakeholders cited as challenges the lack of a regulatory framework to govern the permanent storage of large amounts of CO2 in saline formations and legal uncertainty regarding long-term liability for the storage of CO2.”
  •  “Most stakeholders told GAO that CCS would increase electricity costs, and some reports estimate that current CCS technologies would increase electricity costs by about 30 to 80 percent at plants using these technologies. DOE has also reported that CCS could increase water consumption at power plants.”

  • “While DOE, electric industry groups, and other stakeholders have set goals to commercially deploy CCS in coal plants in the next 10 to 15 years, they acknowledge that these goals present significant challenges. In particular, they have highlighted the large costs to install and operate current CCS technologies. In 2007, DOE estimated the cost to install current CCS technologies was 85 percent higher for plants with post-combustion capture and was 36 percent higher for pre-combustion capture at IGCC plants, compared to comparable plants without CCS.”

  • “In addition, the large amount of energy that current CCS technologies require to operate—known as parasitic load—reduces the electricity plants can sell and raises operating costs. Parasitic load is estimated to be between 21 percent and 32 percent of plant output for post-combustion CO2 capture and between 15 percent and 22 percent for pre-combustion CO2 capture.”

  • “Similarly, officials from one state public utility commission reported that they considered CCS immature and were unlikely to approve cost recovery for such a project in the foreseeable future.”

  • “In addition, nearly all stakeholders cited as challenges the lack of a regulatory framework to govern the permanent storage of large amounts of CO2 in saline formations and legal uncertainty regarding long-term liability for the storage of CO2.”

  • “From a legal perspective, most stakeholders reported that making efficiency upgrades to the existing fleet of coal power plants was limited by the prospect of triggering the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review (NSR) requirements––additional requirements that may apply when a plant makes a major modification, a physical or operational change that would result in a significant net increase in emissions.”

  • “Some utility officials also said CCS could lead to a decline in the ability of individual plants to operate reliably because a power plant might need to shut down if any of the three components (capture, transport, and storage) of CCS became unavailable. In addition, more electricity sources would need to make up for the higher parasitic load associated with CCS. The National Coal Council has also reported temporary declines in reliability during past deployments of new coal technologies.”

  • “For example, DOE has estimated that efficiency improvements to the existing coal fleet could reduce CO2 emissions by 100 million tons annually, or about a 5 to 10 percent reduction in overall emissions from these plants.”

  • “An ultra-supercritical plant emits about one-third less CO2 than an average plant in the United States.”