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The Progressive Economics Forum

Keeping emissions underground

I was intrigued by a quote in a recent Globe Foundation report on BC’s green economy that BC has 1000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, a “low carbon resource opportunity for both transportation and for export to other economies around the world.” Converting to metric, and using BC government emission factors for combusting natural gas, this would be 55.8 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 awaiting its release into the atmosphere.

To put that number in perspective, this is almost double the world’s annual CO2 emissions. And I’m pretty sure that does not count additional reserves that could become available due to a massively environmentally damaging process called “fracking” (I kid you not, lovers of Battlestar Galactica).

Ironically, the Globe report categorizes these natural gas reserves under Green Natural Resource Opportunities. Which brings us back to CCS. If carbon capture and storage technologies can be successfully implemented over the lifecycle of this extracted natural gas, including where it is combusted, there might be a case to be made for their extraction.

But that seems like a big if, especially given all of the other bona fide green energy opportunities that could be tapped. Why invest so much in retrofitting coal plants for natural gas when we could be building out wind, water and solar technologies? Some work I’ve cited before from Jacobson and Delucci makes the case for 100% renewables by 2030, and they have an extensive and rigorous analysis to back it up. They do not consider any combustion (CCS or biofuels) in their approach, which makes their technological, resource and economic assessment even more interesting. And they note that even with CCS, coal-fired electricity has way higher lifecycle emissions than any renewable (best in class is wind, in their estimation).

There only decent argument to be had for natural gas is that, as the “cleanest” of the fossil fuels, it could be a “transition fuel” from coal en route to truly sustainable sources. But the counter-argument to that is the sheer urgency of getting over our addiction to fossil fuels necessitates much bolder action, so it is better to spearhead an aggressive switch directly to renewables.

Enjoy and share:

Comments

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: March 25, 2010, 1:49 pm

I think Marc you would have to move to a European country for anybody to take renewable energy ideas seriously. There si a bit of activity here but it still seems to be mostly fringe policy from an action standpoint.

I will say this about Natural gas, the carbon per unit of energy produced is more than one half that of coal and somewhere about 30% less than oil. I’ll have to find the exact source for that but I am pretty sure those are close numbers.

Also CCS I still have not read a legitimate scientific source on the feasibility of CCS and from some of the trials going on, there is a long long way for this tech, if ever to go before becoming feasible. That is unless you talk to the climate change deniers who will tell you CCS is just around the corner!

Do you think it may have something to do with vested in interests?

Comment from Willy Loman
Time: March 25, 2010, 2:45 pm

In answer to your question Paul, yes.

Comment from Marc Lee
Time: March 25, 2010, 6:25 pm

Paul,

From what I have seen, CCS is technically viable. From the vantage point of 1970, the iPhone is pure fantasy, and this is not nearly as complicated as that.

But CCS would be expensive to implement. That, along with some big-time liability issues, and the point that they may not capture 100% of emissions, are the real barriers. The vested interests would go there if they had to (they are already doing a lot in preparation for this, including 8 pilot sites in BC), but in the interim are seeking to delay and to get government to finance most of the cost.

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: March 25, 2010, 8:09 pm

Yes they are technically viable and so to was storing nuclear waste. The problem for me is the actual cost and whether the tech can store it long enough in a manner that would be required to effectively keep it out of the atmosphere.

So two things haunt the process- cost, and by that I mean the real costs. Lets take nuclear waste. It costs x amount per year to store it in a manner that is supposedly eco friendly. The half life of nuclear waste is what? 200K years. So multiply x amount of per barrel of waste by 200k and you tell me whether nuclear is actually feasible. And a similar problem occurs with CO2 storage. Given the amount of C02 that has shocked the atmosphere and the amount that must be taken out naturally, we cannot have some system that looks like it is feasible in the short run due to accounting costs that forget about the timelines involved. Even if they stick way underground, assuming the can do it, there is a cost of keeping it down there and a cost that must be incurred for many years.

This of course assumes that they can get the tech for the extraction or capture process down to a means that it is feasible. This leave a very big job to be done with CCS, the science and the costs must be scrutinized very very closely. In fact I do think given the PPM equation that is at stake, we need to be even more closely scrutinize than previous generations were with Nuclear waste storage.

I lived in a small town Elliot lake, where even today, x amount a year is spent on maintaining abandoned mines filled with who knows what and for how long, that not a one of those companies will be on the hook for 50 years from now let alone 200K years from now.

The bottomline is, I am not convinced CCS is, or ever will be, but an excuse to burn more fossil fuels. So let them try their experiments but progressives must stay atop of this experiment, as there is so much more at stake here than the debate that went on with nuclear waste storage.

The other point that you mention is the efficiency in the actual capture of carbon. Currently, in terms of percentage captured, at least from the pilots I read, we are still quite a ways from 90%. I do hope at the PEF conference you can make some headway in terms of and economic -enviro critique of the tech and its potential.

Here is the figures I mentioned on CO2 and other chemicals produced per unit of energy by the various fossil fuels.

In the end though we both agree that renewable is the future and I do like many eco type view CCS as a delay in transformation that is required.

Fossil Fuel Emission Levels
– Pounds per Billion Btu of Energy Input
Pollutant Natural Gas Oil Coal
Carbon Dioxide 117,000 164,000 208,000
Carbon Monoxide 40 33 208
Nitrogen Oxides 92 448 457
Sulfur Dioxide 1 1,122 2,591
Particulates 7 84 2,744
Mercury 0.000 0.007 0.016
Source: EIA – Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: March 29, 2010, 11:03 am

While we are on this subject I wanted to bring to light something that is bothering me- (at least more than on most days)

Vale Inco is claiming that one of the reasons they are demanding all these concessions from the Sudbury Steelworkers is through the upcoming costs of meeting environmental standards.

Recall how we all pretty much agreed that situations such as bringing out environmental change cannot be done on the backs of workers and consumers. While here again is a case where the company is using (potentially as a scape goat) that the cost to meet eco standards means workers must accept concessions. If this is the case why are the governments of Ontario and Canada, saying that this is a private matter between the company and its workers?

Erin do you have any information on this- as I have been trying to find out what costs Vale is making claims towards.

Paul

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