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The debate continues about climate change. Is it a natural phenomenon? Is it man-induced? Most likely, it is a combination of both but to what degree? Even if it is partly man-induced, the U.S. must take the lead in developing technologies that can achieve a dramatic decline in carbon emissions particularly by using advanced carbon sequestration processes and nuclear power generation. Montana could be a player, too.

Although CS technologies have yet to be demonstrated at full scale in this country, their promise is especially important for Montana because of coal’s importance to our state’s economy. It is Montana’s premium fuel. However, coal is blamed as the leading industrial culprit to climate change. Developing advanced CS processes for use at coal plants will maintain and enhance our economy. On the other hand, carbon emissions from the private sector and transportation industries are the major carbon emission sources due to the use of combustible engines in automobiles, planes, etc., and the production of fuel from oil refineries. Hence, advanced CS processes will need to applied broadly and may need more than one type being developed.

No-carbon energy

NP generation is important because a large amount of energy is produced from a small amount of fuel. More importantly, it does not produce carbon emissions. What’s needed here is a commitment to developing small modular reactors that are inherently safe, produce less waste, and are cheaper to build than large traditional NP plants. However, the use of advanced NP technology in Montana will require substantial changes in state policies.

There isn’t any time to waste. Although our nation’s energy future has become considerably brighter as a result of the enormous growth in oil and natural gas production, we will continue to need a balanced mix of electricity production to keep prices down and our economy strong. Natural gas, with its history of price volatility, reminds us of what could happen if we become heavily dependent on a single energy source for electricity production and neglect coal and nuclear power.

If a system for capturing carbon emissions and storing them deep underground in geological formations or depleted oil and natural gas wells can be shown to deliver, it would demonstrate that coal can be used for electricity production just about anywhere in the world without significant environmental problems. That would boost coal’s value and help energize our country’s sagging coal industry.

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Policymakers need to put coal in context. Although U.S. electricity output from coal plants declined by 25 percent since 2007 and aging coal plants are being retired prematurely due to environmental regulations and the availability of currently cheap natural gas, the use of coal in many other countries continues to increase. U.S. coal exports are at record levels, and are expected to keep rising. China, India and other countries with fast-growing economies understandably intend to use coal for industrialization and to bring electricity to billions of people who are still without power.

World needs coal

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Today there are about 7,000 individual coal plants worldwide, and another 1,200 plants being built or on the drawing board. China alone is bringing a new Coal plant on line at least every second week. Coal already accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s energy-related carbon emissions. A massive increase in coal use would make it more difficult to slow the pace of climate change, unless the United States takes the lead in developing advanced CS processes.

To bring on large-scale advanced CS and NP reactors would take a Herculean effort not unlike the “Apollo Mission” days. In all likelihood, that would require placing a modest price on carbon of around $20 perton generating about $1.25 trillion in revenue through 2022. That would reduce the 10-year deficit by 50 percent, based on projections from the Congressional Budget Office. Some of the revenue could be used for the demonstration of energy technologies and the balance devoted to reducing the federal deficit. That could lead to greater use of coal and nuclear power within a decade, putting some much-needed muscle into the battle against climate change, while bolstering our economy.

Many argue that there are better alternatives. However, virtually all sites for constructing dams have been taken. Electricity production from solar and wind only works if the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.

It’s high time to stop the attacks on coal and nuclear and recognize they will remain an essential part of our energy supply and economy for decades to come.

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Courtney Young teaches at Montana Tech in Butte.

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