Carbon Capture and Storage: Magic Bullet or Delusion?

Depending on who you talk to, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is either the face of climate salvation or the height of delusional behaviour associated with our favourite hallucinogenic drug, fossil fuels. I have read both cases and suspect that the truth is somewhere in between, but I’m not an engineer either so it has been hard to make up my mind.

For those who do not follow this stuff regularly, CCS is based on seperating out CO2 from fossil fuel production or combustion activities (could be a coal-fired electricity plant or processing of tar sands or natural gas into usable product) and pumping it deep underground where it will stay, forever. Embedded in CCS is the (correct) idea that if our fuel comes from underground, it must be returned underground or it is not sustainable (actually, even if this is successful, it may not be sustainable for other environmental reasons).

This summer, our family trip took us to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, home of a widely reported CCS demonstration project, in which EnCana is pumping CO2 for “enhanced oil recovery”, which is fancy talk for saying they are not doing it as Good Samaritans but to re-pressurize an existing well to get more of the black gunk out. My wife’s uncle is a small organic farmer (a dying breed) outside of Weyburn, and like most farmers works a full-time job to pay the bills, and that job happens to be at the Weyburn CCS facility. He has no stake in the bigger debates on CCS and it was good to get an honest appraisal of how the operation works, and it does.

So I want to believe the Mark Jaccard view that zero carbon fossil fuels are a possible future, but nonetheless I’m still skeptical. Much of the concern around CCS has been that once we pump megatonnes of CO2 underground that it will just come back up to the surface. From what I have read and heard this is not really a major issue unless we plan on doing it on a tectonic fault line — it is more of a projection of how we think the world works up here on the surface to a very different world below ground. For example, CO2 is not injected as a gas but as a compressed liquid that is too heavy to rise up against its rocky oppressors. Leaks from pipelines en route, however, may well be an important issue if we take CCS seriously. That said, over a very long time horizon, like a few hundred to a thousand years, one cannot dismiss such concerns entirely and we need to ask who will be holding the liability bag when the company doing the sequestering may be long gone.

The problems seem to be less about technology and geology but instead economics, politics and regulation. First of all, because of geology every CCS project will be different, and will face different costs of implementation. At current carbon prices (zero in most places in North America, and $15 per tonne in BC) no projects are going to happen. Estimates vary but I have heard that carbon prices need to be anywhere from $50 to $150 per tonne before it would be economical for CCS implementation. Those prices seem unlikely to appear out of our current political processes –  whether in BC, Canada or the US — any time soon.

So if CCS is going to go ahead in the near term it would require fairly substantial public subsidies. But then we must ask what the opportunity costs of such public investments are — a whole suite of renewable technologies may well be a better public bet, as outlined in a new and highly recommended feature article in Scientific American. Public subsidies are generally warranted in the basic research and pre-commercial stages of new technology development, but it looks like the industry is already past that in proving the concept. And then, of course, why should governments give billions away to corporations that are already astonishingly profitable?

Alternatively, we could point this back at the industry and mandate CCS for any new oil and gas projects, with all current projects required to be in compliance between, say, 2020 and 2030. Such a move also seems unlikely and in any event would have to be backstopped by substantial measuring, monitoring and enforcement regulations. Still, it would make the industry put its money where its mouth is. The costs of CCS projects would then get built into the price of the consumer product, and doing so would also improve the competitive position of wind, hydro and solar renewable options.

Where I am even more skeptical is about whether CCS would be able to contain anything close to 100% of emissions on a life-cycle basis. For example, a proposed CCS facility in Fort Nelson, BC by Spectra Energy (a natural gas pipeline company) would capture essentially all of the emissions from separating out CO2 during the processing phase of operations, about 2 megatonnes per year worth. But if overall expansion of extraction activities in BC occurs (I’ve heard from someone else at Spectra to expect a 8-10 Mt per year “juggernaut” coming online in the next decade), this will swamp any efforts on CCS.

And then there are the end users. In the case of natural gas, 70-75% of the emissions are from burning it in people’s homes, so if that stays the same or goes up, we could still be a lot worse off. Similarly, a coal-fired electricity plant could be more promising with 100% CCS at the plant, but we still would have to count emissions associated digging up and transporting all that coal. So even if we are generous about the technology’s potential as is, we are left with some big and dirty challenges en route to a low-carbon economy.

The reps from Spectra Energy concede that CCS is not a panacea, and that every project will be different so it is hard to have one blanket policy for some generic thing we call CCS. In their case, I’m left thinking that there could be some small role for CCS in the bigger picture if it is consistent with overall emission reductions, and perhaps in a transition phase that switches some current production to natural gas because it is way more energy efficient than coal. But then again, if we are going to spend the money on retrofitting coal plants and other facilities, why not just jump straight to renewables that do not rely on digging up more fossil fuels?

5 comments

  • Delusional.

    The American Coal reserves are gigantic when compared to the world’s supply of coal. Hence the discourse without a lot of the technical proven. You have got to read the stats on coal reserves in the US! It is mind boggling how much they have just sitting there waiting to be burned- and there is no such thing as clean coal. Getting the sulfur out to acceptable levels that only marginally keep the acidity down is one thing, (that is if you avoid the fact that most lakes have a limited buffer on acidity and we could one day just be pushing that over the edge with more sulfur in the air) but then we move to Carbon capture.

    Prove it first and then move the asset development forward. This whole lets develop it and then maybe see if we can capture it is mind bogglingly irresponsible, but ultimately given the coal reserves in the US, extremely profitable

    If the US moves to electrification of the transportation- the temptation of the coal without the proven tech is just too tempting.

    Hey I am not a Luddite- prove it and then move on and talk about development.

    The typical way to move ahead politically- just like nuclear power- lets move in that direction even though we have not got the technical figured out has got to stop.

    Sounds a whole lot like lets put the nuclear waste in these barrels that will only last a few thousand years, yet the half life for safety is in the hundreds of thousands.

    Not a solution and from my reading carbon capture is not the way forward, but politically and economically- it is. Damn you might as well go nuke rather than coal, at least you get a few thousand years out of the current storage tech.

    I like your last sentence Marc, but with all that coal sitting there, it ain’t gonna happen.

    If you do the math- energy per $ is far cheaper with coal than oil right now for the US by a long long way. Of course that assumes you have an infrastructure in place, and once the fleet of cars is changed over to Hybrids, the push for coal will be unrelenting no matter how much the C02 output is.

    Politically the states will finally have energy self sufficiency- and coal is the way forward. Economic and politics far out trump the environment even under this current equation of crisis in global warming.

    I am very afraid of coal- and hey I hope they can find the tech and do carbon capture in a long term sustainable method. It will save us a few motivations for war over scarcity for sure- and maybe that alone is worth dirty coal. Not sure- anybody do a carbon footprint of wars yet? Apparently somebody did one instead on dog ownership and damn it, looks like my two Shelties are just plaiin old out carboning themselves- every dog was measured as equivalent to driving a SUV for the year.

    Wow- spare us our dogs please, I could much rather do without a few wars. So much wealth in this world and to think somebody has got to start picking on dogs rather than something that really is useless. How about a few less tanks- a few less bombers a few less nukes- a few less research projects on who to kill ourselves better and more dogs! (especially Shelties)

  • CCS in Fort Nelson also an acronym for CCS Midstream Landfill Services which accepts petroleum and petroleum biproducts from drilling and processing operations in the natural gas industry. The landfills are holding areas where these deposits are monitored while contained. Check out their website

    Although the Fort Nelson Spectra gas plant may be a large emitter, hundreds of primary gas processing separation facilities exist in the muskeg where the gas initially is gathered before it goes to the Fort Nelson Spectra plant. These small plants emit an uncalculated amount of emissions into the atmosphere. Some thought was given to having these smaller plants “scrub” their emissions in light of Kyoto concerns in the 1990’s. Very little has been done to control the emissions or capture the emissions. Yellow flares burn from thousands of flarestacks throughout the northeast corner of British Columbia. Alberta has legislation to tax these emissions whereas BC is some ten years behind in implementing reporting requirements for Green House Emissions and Sulphur output (acid rain).

    Conflicting emissions accounts are given by a variety of producers and watchdog environmental organizations. Governments are underfunded on environmental assessing and rely on industry to report their own figures, and pay royalties on the estimated emissions. Several tax relief structures are in place to assist industry in building infrastructure to capture and recycle these emissions.

    Bottom line, inevitably emissions and the results of producing marketable fuels and biproducts will be known to not only the producers but eventually the public. Simple science says emissions are not all water vapour.

    Other countries can assist us since our limited resources cannot address these issues.

    Industry funds the processing jobs through the production revenues of the resource, however the monitoring and complete capture should also be paid by the revenues of the resource.

  • Here is an interesting article from Scientific AMerican. I guess Marc is not the only one asking these important questions.

    My summary from the article which seems to be giving a good kick at neutrality, I think, is this attempt at carbon capture is quite limited in its success and will be quite expensive, and the very large technical problems may more be in the storage issue rather than capture, although capture tech is still very far away from being proven.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=first-look-at-carbon-capture-and-storage

  • “Much of the concern around CCS has been that once we pump megatonnes of CO2 underground that it will just come back up to the surface. From what I have read and heard this is not really a major issue unless we plan on doing it on a tectonic fault line”

    Boy did I get that one wrong: http://www.progressive-economics.ca/2011/01/13/another-pipe-dream/

  • “perhaps in a transition phase that switches some current production to natural gas because it is way more energy efficient than coal”

    I blew this one, too. A recent study put shale gas fracking on par with coal for lifecycle GHG emissions. And shale gas is now half of BC’s production. So any optimism I had about natural gas two years ago is pretty much out the window.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.