Should utilities get carbon credits for using coal ash to make cement?

With the argument against coal gaining momentum by the day, the last thing utilities and big coal needed was toxic headlines from Tennessee’s coal ash spill. A front page NYT article looking into coal ash treatment reveals the industry has managed to keep the toxic stew at some 1,600 sites nation wide pretty much regulation free, by either the EPA (which has been reviewing the issue for nearly 30 years) or at the state level.

Over at Green Inc., Kate Galbraith has a smart post looking past all the dreadful news about the spill, pointing out that one of the best hopes to deal with coal ash is to turn it into a something useful. But there’s a twist. First the treatment. Dominion Generation, for example, reprocesses its ash at plant to mix into cement. This is a good approach because it chemically locks up many of the most offending agents in the coal ash and also because it substantially lowers the amount of energy needed to make new cement.

(Fun fact of the day: cement production is among the biggest greenhouse gas producing industries, responsible for 5% of the earth’s carbon dioxide emissions, even though by revenue it accounts a tiny fraction of global GDP. Because the use of coal ash lowers the GHG emissions from conventional cement.)

Now the twist. Utilities are keen to have the carbon reductions created by using coal ash in cement counted in any targets to lower GHG emissions. Galbraith writes:

Dominion wants its reprocessing of coal-ash to generate credits for carbon-emissions reduction, which it hopes to use in the Northeast’s carbon-reduction scheme, called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. But the Conservation Law Foundation, a Northeast environmental group, rejects this idea, saying that the carbon-reduction benefits of using coal-ash to reduce emissions from cement production are questionable.

This is a question, like so many in carbon policy, that centers around hard-to-prove intentions. Would or should the utility be doing this without of such an incentive? If so, then the credit should not be offered. I’m inclined to think later, since the need for regulation of this waste predates any GHG debate. The industry should have been responsibly disposing of this stuff for decades, and if using the fly-ash to do so were the most economic approach, let that method win out over sealed dumps or some of the other alternatives.

Galbraith reports the Massachusetts Department of Environment is leaning towards approval of this credit play, but is awaiting public comment. No matter what, it’s a case where the industry has to take responsibility, environmentally and financially, for the risk and harm done by this waste stream. Thoughts?

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