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Cleanest coal plant delivers trade-off

DE KALB, Miss. – America’s newest, most-expensive coal-fired power plant is hailed as one of the cleanest on the planet, thanks to government-backed technology that removes carbon dioxide and keeps it out of the atmosphere.

But once the carbon is stripped away, it will be used to do something that is not so green at all. It will extract oil.

When President Barack Obama first endorsed this “carbon-capture” technology, the idea was that it would fight global warming by sparing the atmosphere from more greenhouse gases. It makes coal plants cleaner by burying deep underground the carbon dioxide that typically is pumped out of smokestacks.

But that green vision proved too expensive and complicated. So the administration accepted a trade-off.

To help the environment, the government allows power companies to sell the carbon dioxide to oil companies, which pump it into old oil fields to force more crude to the surface. A side benefit is that the carbon gets permanently stuck underground.

The program shows the ingenuity of the oil industry, which is using government green-energy money to subsidize oil production. But it also showcases the environmental trade-offs Obama is willing to make, but rarely talks about, in his fight against global warming.

Companies have been injecting carbon dioxide into old oil fields for decades. But the tactic hasn’t been seen as a pollution-control strategy until recently.

Obama has spent more than $1 billion on carbon-capture projects tied to oil fields and has pledged billions more for clean coal. Recently, the administration said it wanted to require all new coal-fired power plants to capture carbon dioxide. Four power plants in the U.S. and Canada planning to do so intend to sell their carbon waste for oil recovery.

The unlikely marriage of coal burners and oil producers hits a political sweet spot. It silences critics who say the administration is killing coal and discouraging oil production, while appeasing environmentalists who want Obama to get tougher on coal.