'Clean Coal' liability reduction sought
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'Clean Coal' liability reduction sought

Date: March 10, 2009
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 391

JEFFERSON CITY - Seeking to make Missouri a more attractive home for "clean coal" technology, Sen. Kurt Schaefer testified at a committee hearing Tuesday for a bill he has filed that would limit utility companies' liability for personal injuries caused by the storing of coal plant emissions underground.

The city of Springfield wants to begin ridding its air of carbon dioxide, and it wants to begin pumping it into the earth in a process known as carbon sequestration. Various studies have found it to be the safest way to store coal, known as "clean coal." However, the Missouri Energy Department recommends emissions be stored at 3,000 feet or lower, which Schaefer said is not feasible in this state. An earmark from U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., designates funding for the Missouri Carbon Sequestration Project (MCSP), which would examine if the technology is even possible at 2,000 feet below ground.

If successful, the plant produced by the MCSP could be the first fully functioning emissions-neutral power plant in the country. 

The bill introduced by Schaefer, R-Columbia, would limit the personal injury liability to $300,000 per individual injured or killed by negligent carbon sequestration and ban punitive damages. But Schaefer said this bill would not limit monies that a victim could receive for property damage. He, along with representatives from Springfield's City Utilities, said the project would not be possible without liability protection.

"'Clean coal' really won't develop in Missouri if we don't give them this project," said Gary Pendergrass, a registered geologist who is working on the MCSP. "And the project won't come to fruition without shielding the researchers from exorbitant damages."

According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Web site, coal power generates nearly half of all the electricity in this country, and Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, said it powers more than three out of four electric sources in Missouri. At this stage, there are no coal-fired electrical plants nationally that store more than token amounts of carbon dioxide, and Schaefer said that the state should be a leader in exploring the "proven" technology that has yet to be tested here.

"As a matter of public policy, we should pursue this," Schaefer said. "This is the chance for the state to be a leader, not a follower."

To have an environment that is attractive for electric and coal companies to even research whether clean coal is feasible in Missouri, Schaefer told the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee that the state has to create a business climate that is enticing for the utilities.

Schaefer cited past projects, such as the construction of the Katy Trail in the late 1980s, that went forward once concerns about liability were alleviated.  There were worries from those who lived along the trail, Schaefer said, that people would hurt themselves on their private property and sue, and they demanded, and received, immunity from liability.

"They didn't want to build the Katy Trail for a while because people didn't want someone breaking their leg near their property and suing them," Schaefer said. "Like that, this will create a sense of comfort for those who want to invest in clean coal."

Warren Wood, president of the Missouri Energy Development Association, said that he expects electricity rates to increase "by 30 to 50 percent" by 2020 and that a "clean" coal plant in the state could save citizens "billions on their electric bills," because the state could store carbon emissions locally and not have to send them through a pipeline hundreds of miles to be buried.

The committee's chair, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, expressed some reservations about the bill. He was worried the bill would create a double standard for corporate liability.

"Every industry would love nothing better than to hear that 'you can't get me if we hurt someone,'" Bartle told Schaefer. "Anytime you're going to give one industry subset an advantage over another you run risk that the cycle never ends."

Schaefer said that utilities are a different case than industries such as pharmaceuticals because they are merely doing research to see if coal emissions can be buried underground, as opposed to selling the product to a consumer.

Ken Vuylsteke, speaking on behalf of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, questioned the safety of "clean coal" to begin with. He said it was not worth potentially hurting people and limiting damages they can receive until it is proven to not be dangerous. He said protecting private researchers as well as utilities is worrisome.

"Missouri is the most cavernous state in the union, and we are injecting masses of carbon dioxide into the ground, which could cause seismic reactions," Vuylsteke said. "Where we are really concerned is that this extends liability to private companies, which do not have the same level of public trust and are not subject to the same scrutiny as public utilities."

Pendergrass said the liability protection is the only way to entice research, and if Missouri doesn't extend it, another state will.

"Concern about liability is hampering 'clean coal' developments nationwide," he said. "If we don't give (researchers) more incentive to find alternatives to how our emissions are now, then change won't happen."

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