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CCS: An Energy Wild Goose Chase, Not Silver Bullet July 15, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is the much-hyped “clean” in “clean coal.”  Contrary to industry advertising, as of yet, it doesn’t really exist – so neither does “clean coal.”  If carbon-pricing ever occurs (and at some point it will), CCS will be vital to the survival of the coal industry.

So on Wednesday, a bipartisan pair of coal state senators pushed for yet more funding for this technology.  Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) are seeking $20 billion to support large-scale CCS demonstration projects.

So how does it work?

Burning coal releases a lot of carbon dioxide.  Today, CO2 simply vented into the atmosphere with the rest of coal’s air pollutants. As a greenhouse gas, CO2 emissions are causing climate change, so CCS seeks to capture that carbon dioxide before it gets released and store it someplace other than our atmosphere.  In theory, if we can filter out the CO2 from coal combustion and store it safely, we could burn fossil fuels to our hearts’ content without exacerbating global warming.  CCS technology can potentially remove 80%-95% of CO2 emissions from power plants and other industrial sources.

Cost aside, the major technical issue with CCS is figuring out where to store all that gas.  There are two major options for storage:

  1. Geological storage
  2. Ocean storage

Geological Storage:

The most obvious place to store CO2 is within the Earth.  Our planet is rich with geological formations that naturally hold gases underground; it within these geologic traps that we currently drill for oil and natural gas.  Like helium in a balloon, light gases attempt to rise through the ground.  When impermeable rocks form solid, dome-shaped formations, gases become trapped there, having risen as high as they can.

The most attractive potential CCS sites are deep saline reservoirs, unmineable coal seams, and oil and gas reservoirs.

There are a number of geological formations that can theoretically store CO2 underground.

In regard to that third option, geo-sequestering CCS has been conducted on a small scale since the 1970s.  Subterranean gas injection is one of the techniques known as “Enhanced Oil Recovery,” often abbreviated EOR. Injecting gases into oil reservoirs can artificially increase the pressure within a given well, thus enabling the recovery of oil that would not have otherwise been obtainable.  It helps get a little more oil out of a depleting well. CCS can help us make the most of our existing domestic oil infrastructure instead of drilling in new, sensitive areas.  Whether such operations are suitable for long-term carbon storage is under investigation.

However, CCS took a big hit just two months ago, when researchers at Texas A&M determined that CCS will require 5-20 times more underground reservoir capacity than previous thought.

Ocean Storage:

In theory, injecting CO2 at great depths within the ocean could keep the carbon out of the atmosphere for a geologically significant amount of time.  At depths of over 1000 meters, CO2 will simply dissolve in the water.  At depths of over 3000 meters, CO2 forms a liquid denser than seawater and pools at that depth for a time before ultimately dissolving.  A number of other ocean storage theories exist.

All of them are terrible ideas. Even if we could guarantee that oceanic CO2 never returned to the atmosphere (we cannot), carbon dioxide causes plenty of problems in the ocean as well.  We don’t even understand all of the potential consequences of oceanic CCS, but we do understand that it would cause ocean acidification, about which I have already written an entire post.

Transportation:

Regardless of where the CO2 is stored, a second major technological hurdle is transportation.  After capture at each stationary source, CO2 would need to be transported to whatever storage sites were to be used.  This could be done most economically via pipeline.  However, this is no simple matter.

“That CCS and related legislation generally focuses on the capture and storage of CO2, and not on its transportation, reflects the current perception that transporting CO2 via pipelines does not present a significant barrier to implementing large-scale CCS.”  –Congressional Research Service 2007, p. 2.

…but it does.

The various technologies required to build a CO2 pipeline network are each individually considered mature.  However, integrating them and deploying them at such a large scale would a considerable challenge.

Widespread CCS use would require its own dedicated national CO2 pipeline network.  That network does not exist. Currently, there are approximately 3,600 miles of CO2 pipeline in operation within the US, mostly to support EOR operations.  In contrast, there are approximately 500,000 miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid (such as gasoline) pipelines across the country.

To utilize CCS, we would need CO2 pipelines running across the country from hundreds of major stationary emitters to reservoirs. That infrastructure would have to be built from scratch.

Politicians have not seemed to notice yet, but this contributes to yet another critical problem with CCS…

Very High Cost:

CCS is an expensive venture.  Massive amounts of federal funding have already been funneled into CCS research and development.

The stimulus bill included $3.4 billion for CCS programs related projects.  Department of Energy budgets for fiscal years 2008-2010 included a combined total of $1.26 billion in direct CCS or CCS-related funding.  Federal loan guarantees for CCS were first authorized in the Dick Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005.  The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 restated that authority indefinitely and provided an additional $8 billion in coal-related loan guarantees.  The Cheney energy bill also included $1.3 billion in tax credits for advanced coal projects (source).

That’s about $14 billion right there.  This before the $20 billion now proposed by Senators Rockefeller and Voinovich. Why so much money?

A University of California study found that laying the 16 inch diameter pipeline that CCS would require would cost $800,000/mile (in 2002 dollars) although costs for individual pipelines could vary by a factor of 5 depending on location.

Last year, a Harvard study put the future of CCS in serious doubt.  These researchers determined that the “realistic” cost of first-generation CCS will be about $150/ton of CO2.  That price tag would make this technology infeasible.  We emit a LOT of CO2 each year.  Some analysts believe that, if utilized, CO2 sequestration rates could rise to over 1 billion tons of carbon per year by mid-century.  Even if that cost/ton came down as the technology advanced, the annual price tag would be staggering.

For reference, last year, analysts suggested a price ceiling of $35/ton of CO2 for cap-and-trade credits because costs higher than that were deemed prohibitively high.  In 2007, the Bingaman-Specter cap-and-trade bill had a price ceiling at $12/ton of CO2 (although commentators corrected deemed this ridiculously low).  The point is that $150/ton is beyond uneconomical.

Coal’s low price is what makes it so attractive to utilities (it certainly doesn’t have any other redeeming qualities).  Coals’ days without CCS are numbered, but CCS’s high costs make coal an unrealistic fuel for the future.

Safety:

Leakage out of the reservoir is a major concern.  Even stable rock formations shift in earthquakes.  In order for CCS to be an effective climate mitigator, sequestered carbon would have to remain underground for thousands of years.  Seismic activity presents a danger of undoing all that sequestration.

But even beyond climate concerns, if a carbon reservoir leaked near a populated area, that escaping carbon dioxide would pose a significant health risk.

Because CO2 is denser than air, when it leaks out of the ground it forms an invisible, undetectable cloud that pools near the ground and displaces the oxygen, suffocating any life nearby.  This has happened naturally and given us a glimpse of what could occur: in 1986, Lake Nyos in Cameroon released a large amount of CO2, silently killing nearly two thousand people and a large number of livestock.

1,700 people and 3,500 cattle within 16 miles of Lake Nyos were killed when the lake “outgassed” and CO2 displaced the oxygen near the ground.

CCS CO2 reservoirs could pose a substantial threat to nearby life. Pressurized carbon dioxide pipelines present would present a smaller, related risk.

Carbon Dioxide is Dangerous

Yes, carbon dioxide is necessary to sustain life on this planet.  That does not mean that more is better. For the “CO2 Is Green” crowd, I present this paragraph from the CRS report:

“CO2 occurs naturally in the atmosphere, and is produced by the human body during ordinary respiration, so it is commonly perceived by the general public to be a relatively harmless gas. However, at concentrations above 10% by volume, CO2 may cause adverse health effects and at concentrations above 25% poses a significant asphyxiation hazard. Because CO2 is colorless, odorless, and heavier than air, an uncontrolled release may accumulate and remain undetected near the ground in low-lying outdoor areas, and in confined spaces such as caverns, tunnels, and basements. Exposure to CO2 gas, as for other asphyxiates, may cause rapid “circulatory insufficiency,” coma, and death.” –Congressional Research Service 2007, p. 18.

This is what happened at Lake Nyos.

CO2: Pollutant or Commodity?

One additional minor but interesting potential complication for CCS is that CO2 could arguably be classified as both a pollutant and a commodity.  If climate-deniers figure this out, they will have a field day misconstruing this information, but CO2 could be classified as a pollutant by the EPA because of its excess greenhouse capabilities, but classified as a commodity by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) on account of its application for EOR.  Only in this circumstance could CO2 be considered a commodity.

Even if EOR CO2 were classified as a commodity, because it is unlikely that all the CO2 involved in widespread CCS could ever be used in EOR operations, all that excess CO2 not used in this way would probably constitute an industrial pollutant.  This is not just an academic issue; conflicting classifications would have significant impacts on the regulatory process for pipeline construction.

Conclusion:

CCS demonstration plants are under way or planned in at least 10 countries including the U.S..  Our government is pouring money into this technology thanks to the Congressional sponsorship that coal industry campaign donations, lobbyists and jobs have bought.

However, the industry is lying to the public:clean, carbon-neutral coal”is decades away, if possible at all. The billions of dollars spent on this research could be better spent on real climate solutions; put $34 billion into solar and wind etc and we will have the clean, renewable energy infrastructure for our future.

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1. Back to the FutureGen: Obama Revives Coal Plant « The Political Climate - August 16, 2010

[…] carbon dioxide emissions, known as Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), the subject of an entire previous post.  This technology could theoretically allow us to burn coal without releasing greenhouse […]


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