The future of carbon capture and storage in the U.S. – as well as the fate of the U.S. coal industry – may be a bleak one, due to the tax reform bill poised to pass Congress. But while coal company executives are fuming over a tax plan that one CEO says “wipes us out,” the U.S. energy secretary is moving forward on the technology with Saudi Arabia.
This week, Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry met with his Saudi Arabian counterpart to discuss “means to enhance the relations” between the two countries when it comes to the energy sector. Included in the talks were plans to develop a framework on cooperating on clean energy (defined as “clean fossil fuels”) and carbon management. The result was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on Monday that seeks to advance “research and collaboration.”
The carbon management discussion between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia included carbon capture and storage (CCS). Advocates of the technology have long said CCS provides the means for countries to harvest their fossil fuel reserves, while minimizing any environmental impact by sequestering those emissions underground in places such as abandoned oil wells or mining operations. Such programs have been launched in nations such as Canada, Norway and the U.S. A project led by Abu Dhabi’s Masdar initiative uses captured carbon to enhance oil and natural gas recovery.
Critics of this technology say it only prolongs dependence on fossil fuels, and is far too expensive to be feasible.
For the Department of Energy, the optics of pulling the plug on carbon capture projects here at home, while promoting projects in a region on which the U.S. was long dependent for energy imports until this decade, is puzzling at best. Yet judging by the tone of the meeting, this summit between the two countries’ energy chiefs was more about cementing ties between the two allies than any advancement of next-generation energy technologies.
“After a productive and informative visit to the Kingdom, today the United States and our friend Saudi Arabia enter an exciting new phase in our energy partnership, building on our collective success with an eye to the future,” said Secretary Perry in a public statement. “This MOU outlines a future alliance not only in supercritical carbon dioxide, but also in a range of clean fossil fuels and carbon management opportunities. Together through the development of clean energy technologies our two countries can lead the world in promoting economic growth and energy production in an environmentally responsible way.”
Cutting to the chase, it is important to remember that this agreement is only an MOU – no official partnership has been launched yet. MOUs are often a convenient way for government agencies and private companies to hold a press event and give off the impression that something has been accomplished. The Saudi-U.S. MOU, for example, was drafted in part to “encourage” the organization of seminars and workshops as well as visits by each nation’s experts to various facilities including research laboratories, institutes, and industrial sites. That does not mean, however, that these visits or any such knowledge transfers will actually occur.
Nevertheless, the idea of promoting any fossil fuel technologies in the Middle East, while implementing a tax bill that would launch a “hard hit” toward the coal industry in the U.S., will prove to be tough for the White House to defend – especially if employment opportunities in the coal industry continue to be stagnant, or even decline, so soon after the sector was ebullient after Donald Trump’s election last year.
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