President Donald Trump promised his administration would bring about "clean coal," but his budget proposed slashing research the industry says it needs to make that a reality.
The Energy Department has spent more than $200 million a year on research into ways to capture and store the carbon dioxide emitted when coal is burned to make electricity. Under Trump's proposal released Tuesday that would be cut to $31 million, an 85 percent reduction.
"It's extremely disappointing," said Brad Crabtree, vice president of fossil energy for the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis group that studies energy and advocates on behalf of carbon capture. "I think at some point the administration is going to have to decide whether they intend to keep their commitments to ensuring a future for coal."
The White House budget sketches out widespread changes to energy research, environmental regulation and government ownership of energy assets, as the Trump administration seeks $3.6 trillion in total spending cuts. As part of that change, the Energy Department would have its budget cut $1.7 billion to $28 billion, with a priority placed on revamping how it funds research and development.
The department would focus on basic research, and then free those technologies to private industry to develop them. That's how Energy Secretary Rick Perry is approaching carbon-capture research, Shaylyn Hynes, an Energy Department spokeswoman, said.
"Secretary Perry's support for clean coal and carbon capture has not changed with this budget request," she said in an e-mail.
Coal is the top source of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for 68 percent of the emissions associated with electricity generation, according to Energy Department data. For each watt of electricity produced, coal emits twice the carbon dioxide as its main competitor, natural gas. Wind, solar and nuclear energy are nearly or entirely carbon-free.
Coal producers have advocated for federal research into the technology to pull the carbon dioxide from smokestacks and store it underground as a way to make that fuel "clean." But the technology for doing that has so far been expensive and elusive.
Coal producers say they hope appropriators will continue funding for this research.
"We are hopeful that Congress will support the further development and commercialization of the carbon capture technology that we believe is necessary for coal to be able to play a long-term role in providing secure, reliable, and affordable electricity while addressing concerns about CO2 and climate," Rick Curtsinger, a spokesman for Cloud Peak Energy Inc., said in an e-mail.
But carbon capture is not universally loved among the coal industry.
"Carbon-capture and sequestration is a pseudonym for, 'No coal,' " Robert Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy Corp., said in an interview. "It just gives political cover to both Republicans and Democrats who say they want to do something for coal. Carbon capture and sequestration is not practical, it is not economic and it should not be funded by the federal government."
Under the auspices of the Energy Department, researchers worked with Southern Co. to develop technology that the utility is installing at the Kemper County carbon-capture facility in Mississippi. It funded research into ways captured carbon dioxide could be used, such as turning it into a solid that could be used in construction. And it identified areas that would be safe to inject the carbon dioxide underground for storage.
"My administration is putting an end to the war on coal. We're going to have clean coal, really clean coal," Trump said in March.
"As in so many areas, they are not serious when they talk about wanting to promote coal and the future for new coal," said David Doniger, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate and clean air program. "If they don't put any money behind it, they are not serious. If there is any pathway for continuing to use coal it's got to include carbon capture and storage."
Ernest Moniz, who prioritized carbon capture as Energy secretary under President Barack Obama, called Trump's first budget request a "retreat of American leadership."
"This administration continues to express skepticism about climate change in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, but there's no going back: We are heading to a low-carbon future," Moniz said in an e-mail.