A top Obama administration official denied the White House is carrying out a "war on coal" as suggested by conservatives, but also hinted the most effective way to curb carbon emissions would be to implement economic incentives – such as a carbon tax – and become less reliant on natural gas.
"There is no war on coal," said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, speaking to reporters at an event sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
Moniz, a longtime physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took over as head of the Depatment of Energy in May. He said President Barack Obama is working to make good on his efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions – thought to be a major driver of global warming – by offering billions in loan guarantees for companies investing in developing advanced fossil technology and in carbon capture projects.
"The interpretation is that we must control CO2, but we must put in place programs with real resources walking the talk to develop these technologies," Moniz said. Obama recently directed the Environmental Protection Agency to develop regulations limiting the carbon output of existing coal plants, but the industry is upset because of the prohibitive costs of retro-fitting old plants with carbon sequestering technology.
"There are multiple instruments that can be used to squeeze down the carbon emissions; right now my job is to … really work to try to continue to drive the cost down," Moniz said. "The goal of innovation in this business is to drive the cost down across the board for low carbon options. I believe that it is only prudent to prepare options for a low carbon future."
And while the United States has enjoyed a recent boom in natural gas development, which has helped it meet the carbon emission cuts sought by the president, Moniz cautioned that true carbon reduction would call for a declining reliance on that resource as well.
"If we're going to get to real low carbon emissions, natural gas – just like coal – would need to have carbon capture to be part of that," he said. "But that looks to be quite a ways off. In the meantime, gas will be a part of the solution."
Moniz's comments come even as Obama continues to tout the country's declining reliance on foreign oil as a result of the natural gas boom, a common refrain during the 2012 campaign.
"We produce more natural gas than ever before and nearly everyone's energy bill is lower because of it," Obama said in his State of the Union speech. "And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollutions that threaten our planet have actually fallen."
Moniz did not overtly state he would pursue a carbon tax as a means of forcing the market to pursue emission reductions, but he hinted it was an attractive option.
"There is a strong interplay between putting a policy in place and getting the cost down," he said. "Getting the cost down makes the policy a lot easier, so we'll see that interplay as we go forward and I would hope that we have a set of policy initiatives that accelerate our low carbon future."
Tom Tanton, an energy and technology consultant who has worked in energy markets for 40 years, says a carbon tax would be misguided and do little to curb global carbon emissions.
"Keep in mind the United States is very efficient, has a low-carbon intensity and has been improving carbon intensity for over 20 years," he says. "If we drive agricultural and manufacturing production overseas where they are not better and they are in fact worse than us, we drive carbon emissions upward. We're not reducing them."
And by offering cash incentives for technology development proves that the administration is being hypocritical when it claims there's no war on coal, Tanton says.
"They admit on the one hand that there's a problem by spending money on it and then say there's no problem – it's just logically inconsistent," he says.