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Greenhouse gas storage is feasible, MIT study says

Sunflower Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant churned out electricity last month in Holcomb, Kan. (Charles Riedel/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- A long-awaited Massachusetts Institute of Technology study on the future of coal says the technology needed to capture greenhouse gas emissions from plants and store them underground apparently is sound, and urged Congress to swiftly pass controls on gases that contribute to global warming.

The MIT report, released yesterday, recommended the immediate construction of large-scale projects using new technology to capture emissions. It suggested that countries around the world build about 10 such systems into large coal plants -- including three in the United States -- in order to test the technology in different underground conditions.

Written by a group of academics from several fields after more than two years of research, the MIT report expressed confidence that large-scale carbon-capture projects could be run safely. But the study cautioned that the handful of prototype facilities in operation are not large enough to solve several technological riddles.

Ernest J. Moniz , a physics professor who co-led the project with chemistry professor John Deutch , said that the researchers assumed three points: that coal is a major contributor to global warming, that "we are going to have a national climate policy, and we are going to have more coal use."

Currently, coal plants produce half of the electricity used in the United States. Because coal is cheap and widely available in the United States, China, India, and many other nations, the report concluded, its use as an energy source is almost surely going to increase worldwide.

Moniz said in an interview that the study's authors found a "lack of urgency in many directions" on US policy related to coal, including implementing a program to capture emissions and store them underground. While many environmentalists yesterday applauded the report's sense of urgency, one member of advisory panel said the study did not go far enough.

"I said to them, `You are missing the boat here,' " said David Hawkins , director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council . "They ought to be recommending all new coal plants have capture and storage built into them."

Hawkins said he worried that while the government studies new technologies in capturing and storing emissions, "that really could lead to a situation where a lot of conventional coal plants get built" before legislation is enacted to limit those emissions.

Moniz, a former undersecretary of energy in the Clinton adminstration, said he personally agrees with Hawkins's theory, but "that's a place we weren't going" in the report. The MIT study "is not a report about recommending a carbon policy."

John Donnelly can be reached at