Congressional Research Service


Date of this Version



Published by Congressional Research Service, 7-5700,, RL34621


Any comprehensive approach to substantially reduce greenhouse gases must address the world’s dependency on coal for one-quarter of its energy demand, including almost half of its electricity demand. To maintain coal in the world’s energy mix in a carbon-constrained future would require development of a technology to capture and store its carbon dioxide emissions. This situation suggests to some that any greenhouse gas reduction program be delayed until such carbon capture technology has been demonstrated. However, technological innovation and the demands of a carbon control regime are interlinked; a technology policy is no substitute for environmental policy and should be developed in concert with it.

Much of the debate about developing and commercializing carbon capture technology has focused on the role of research, development, and deployment (technology-push mechanisms). However, for technology to be fully commercialized, it must also meet a market demand—a demand created either through a price mechanism or a regulatory requirement (demand-pull mechanisms). Any conceivable carbon capture technology for coal-fired power plants will increase the cost of electricity generation from affected plants because of efficiency losses. Therefore, few companies are likely to install such technology until they are required to, either by regulation or by a carbon price. Regulated industries may find their regulators reluctant to accept the risks and cost of installing technology that is not required.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has invested millions of dollars since 1997 in carbon capture technology research and development (R&D), and the question remains whether it has been too much, too little, or about the right amount. In addition to appropriating funds each year for the DOE program, Congress supported R&D investment through provisions for loan guarantees and tax credits. Congress also authorized a significant expansion of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) spending at DOE in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Funding for carbon capture technology has increased substantially as a result of enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Legislation introduced in the 111th and 110th Congresses invokes the symbolism of the Manhattan project of the 1940s and the Apollo program of the 1960s to frame proposals for large-scale energy policy initiatives that include developing CCS technology. However, commercialization of technology and integration of technology into the private market were not goals of either the Manhattan project or Apollo program.

Finally, it should be noted that the status quo for coal with respect to climate change legislation isn’t necessarily the same as “business as usual.” The financial markets and regulatory authorities appear to be hedging their bets on the outcomes of any federal legislation with respect to greenhouse gas reductions, and becoming increasingly unwilling to accept the risk of a coal-fired power plant with or without carbon capture capacity. The lack of a regulatory scheme presents numerous risks to any research and development effort designed to develop carbon capture technology. Ultimately, it also presents a risk to the future of coal.