Oct 27, 2009

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?

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