An Interview with John Deutch

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By Garry Boulard
April 2008

As the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1995 to 1996 and deputy secretary of defense from 1994 to 1995, John M. Deutch is accustomed to being in the news. Credited for encouraging the hiring of more women and minorities at the CIA, while also spearheading an effort to declassify the agency’s Cold War surveillance records, Deutch was formerly a dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After returning to MIT he became an institute professor in the school’s department of chemistry.

In this latest post, Deutch has again generated attention with the publication last year of a report called The Future of Coal—Options for a Carbon Constrained World. In it he states that coal, in a country and world increasingly in need of electricity, should be regarded as a viable and inexpensive energy source, but only if the enabling technologies of carbon capture and sequestration are aggressively used to significantly reduce carbon emissions.

“As the world’s leading energy user and greenhouse gas emitter,” said Deutch in a statement last year, “the U.S. must take the lead in showing the world CCS can work.”

“Demonstration of technical, economic and institutional features of CCS at commercial scale coal combustion and conversion plants will give policymakers and the public confidence that a practical carbon mitigation control option exists, will reduce cost of CCS should carbon emission controls be adopted and will maintain the low-cost coal option in an environmentally acceptable manner,” Deutch added.

In his public remarks concerning the future use of coal, Deutch has also been a critical voice calling for a comprehensive federal policy regarding coal’s future use.

Q: Given the environmental concerns about coal, why should anyone today still view it as an energy source?

A: Because it’s a very important fuel for America. We have abundant sources at home and its relatively cheap—$1.00 or $1.50 per million BTUs compared to natural gas which is $6 or $7.

But of course coal utilization has to be done in a way that is environmentally acceptable. Over the years we have developed in this country, I think, an effective means of controlling criteria and pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, particulants, and most recently mercury from coal plants.  

And it’s a credit to our government, our legislatures and the coal industry for having accomplished this at a price which is acceptable for the general population of the country.

But now comes the additional very serious climate change question, where clearly carbon dioxide emitted from coal-burning power plants is a major contributor—not the only—but a significant contributor.

Q: What can be done then?

A: I think the first thing is to notice that these really are not the kind of problems that are addressed naturally or efficiently by our state legislatures, and that is largely because this is basically a global problem.

You see states like Massachusetts or California or others believing that in the absence of a national policy they have to do something and move forward. Applications come in to the various public utilities commissions, and the states have to decide what path to take.

But it is too complicated, not fair between states and fundamentally not good common sense. Yet whether you think it is a good or a bad thing, the important decisions in this area are being consistently made at the state level.

This part is not good news:  There is no simple answer to this question. It should not be thought that if they approve a coal plant now in Indiana or Texas or wherever that that will mean that that coal plant is grandfathered from future CO2 emission regulations. So you can’t count on grandfathering.

The cost of retrofitting plants, which have been designed not to have CO2 capture, is very high. It will present a future significant problem for the rate payers of the states if utilities have to do something later on to capture their CO2. So that’s one thorny problem.

The second problem is that some states see that it is to their advantage to approve a coal plant because they happen to have coal interests in their states. That, I think, is a potentially unhealthy mixing of government objectives. I have a tendency to want to make a judgment about a coal plant based on their environmental effects and not taking any kind of offsetting local advantage. That is another problem that legislatures and state officials have.

I personally believe, as a matter of national policy, that it is urgent for the U.S. to find a way of building nuclear plants and coal plants with carbon capture sequestration. But we are far away from that. So I believe that absent clarification on the national policies, the local decisions will go more and more towards natural gas, rather than the coal plants or nuclear plants, and it’s because of the absence of a clear national policy.

Q: Do you expect to see more state legislatures, if not taking outright votes on whether or not to approve more coal plants, then at least studying whether or not they are needed?

A: It is a natural political reaction. It’s a complicated subject, the states aren’t clear what their role is and the national government isn’t acting. There has to be some intelligent way to delay. And study is always a good way of delaying. California has had a very good study recently. Several other states and countries are doing similar studies.

But the real issue here is that we need to adopt a national policy on carbon emissions and put into place a credible system for sequestering carbon and deep-saline aquifers.

Q: Should state legislatures take steps to offer incentives to the coal industry in return for adopting more clean technologies?

A: Government has taken the correct steps, for example, in the criteria of pollutants, where they said “Guys, here’s the rules” and then industry went ahead and adapted to those rules in a relatively prompt and cost-effective matter.

What we don’t need is a lot of additional mandates and regulations. What we need is a single, simple policy: “Here, Mr. Investor, or public official or private utility, here is what the rules are going to be on carbon emissions, now you go out and solve it.”

In an absence of clarity of those rules, the uncertainty is too great for anyone to make a decision on a coal plant.