Carbon Capture: Miracle Cure for Global Warming, or Deadly Liability?


Technology to siphon off carbon dioxide from power plants and insert it into rock formations has the government, industry and many leading environmental groups wiping their brows and sighing, "phew." They say "carbon capture and storage" could be one of the central keys to unlocking how the world beats back climate change.

But for a growing list of critics, injecting carbon dioxide into the earth is as risky as sticking a Botox needle into a brow -- who really knows what's going on under the skin? And because this climate cure comes with no prescription to radically change the world's energy diet, skeptics say carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a diversion and a false solution.

CCS is the process of collecting carbon dioxide emissions from sources such as fossil fuel-burning power plants before it reaches the atmosphere and storing it in deep geological formations or in the ocean. While the technology to capture the carbon is already commercially available, and CO2 injection pilot projects are under way, any large-scale plans to capture and store carbon have been mostly elusive.

What's clear, however, is that efforts to push for CCS as one of the most promising technological fixes are heavily under way, just as holes in the plan are slowly bubbling to the surface.

This month, several scientists testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Innovation that major financial investments are urgently needed to make CCS available within the next decade. Howard Herzog, a principal researcher with Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, said a commitment of $1 billion a year is needed.

The meeting coincided with new legislation introduced by Sen. John Kerry, who chairs the subcommittee, to advance CCS. His bill would establish three to five coal-fired "demonstration" plants with CCS technology, and three to five facilities for sequestration, another term for CCS.

In October, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was writing CCS regulations, and last week, OPEC leaders unveiled CCS as the showpiece of their new "energy and environment" agenda.

Not to be left out, some environmental groups are taking their turn around the track with the CCS baton. In July, the National Resources Defense Committee (NRDC) joined Herzog and several other scientists in penning a letter supporting CCS. Other environmental groups supporting CCS are the World Resources Institute, Environmental Defense, and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

CCS as a bridge

While the warnings about the effects of climate change are stark, governments have continued to shovel fossil fuels as if they weren't going out of style. Coal plants in the United States spew out 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year, dozens of new coal plants are elbowing each other in the queue, and China and India are throwing around coal like a newly rich lottery winner tosses cash.

With all the coal and oil usage, breaking the addiction seems more like drug-induced crazy talk than a reality -- which is why groups like the NRDC say CCS would help ease the world into detox while turning to renewable energy.

The NRDC-signed letter says, "The world still relies heavily on fossil fuels though, and breaking this dependence, even with greatly accelerated energy efficiency and renewables deployment, will not happen overnight. Practical reason demonstrates that we urgently need a means to decarbonize fossil fuel use. CCS is a technology capable of doing so."

Professor Robert Jackson, chair of Global Environmental Change at Duke University, said CCS should be a short-term strategy. "Because of the abundance of coal resources in this country, and because of our current reliance on coal, I do think, with some reservations, that this is a technology that we should push hard for and figure out if it works," he said. "And if it works, use [CCS] as a bridge to better forms of energy generation in the future."

And David Morris, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says any attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions dramatically must target emissions from existing power plants.

"We have to figure out a way to sequester the carbon emissions coming from those plants, or we need to close them down," Morris said. "While people are looking to have a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, and I agree with that, it's the existing ones that one has to deal with in terms of sequestration."

But to others, CCS is a bridge that should never be built because of where it could lead. Matt Leonard, a campaigner with the Rainforest Action Network, a group calling for a coal moratorium, said CCS is a public relations scheme to pave the way for new coal-fired power plants.

"The coal industry is grasping at straws trying to find some way to convince the public that they have a place in our future energy policy," Leonard said. "And carbon sequestration is their attempt to brand some kind of PR campaign to have clean coal be a possibility."

Jutta Kill, a climate change expert for the UK's Forests and the European Union Resource Network, said CCS diverts the public's attention away from cutting ties with the coal industry, and instead entrenches reliance on fossil fuels.

"Coal-fired power stations are being built with the promise that this technology will be there one day in the future," Kill said. "It's a very dangerous way of spending a lot of money on a very risky technology and financing new coal-fired power stations, when that supposed remedy is very far-off into the future, and we may well find that it isn't going to work. And then there are all those coal-fired power stations that shouldn't have been built in the first place."

Indeed, while some environmental groups say CCS is a teething ring, other talk surrounding the technology points to a coal industry that doesn't want the world to grow up. Last week, when the University of Utah announced a CCS pilot project using $67 million in public funds, engineering professor Brian McPherson told the Salt Lake Tribune, "Ultimately, the purpose of this project is to develop a blueprint, a template for commercial-scale sequestration associated with new power plants to be built in the region."

And the interest of OPEC and other industry groups in CCS does not bode well for tailoring fossil fuel usage. This month, Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation, issued a scathing critique of CCS, writing, "To one degree or another, carbon sequestration will benefit all of the industries involved, allowing them to continue business as usual, removing the need for substantial innovation and reducing competition from renewable fuels."

With such high stakes, industry is playing, and paying, to win. Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Project is funded by ExxonMobil, General Electric, Schlumberger and Toyota. A portion of Herzog's research at MIT was funded by Shell. Even the NRDC is profiting from CCS and the future of new coal plants; the organization received a $437,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation to "oppose the construction of new conventional coal plants and promote alternative plants using coal gasification with carbon sequestration." The NRDC and Herzog would not grant an interview.

Morris says he understands both sides of the CCS coin. Heads, Morris says: "One can argue that any concept that would leave the sequestering or storage of carbon could be considered a way to avoid doing the right thing. All of that is a diversion."

Tails, he concludes, "On the other hand, I say, why not? After all, the environmental community and the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has told us that no matter what we do now, we're going to face serious climate change with potentially catastrophic impacts in the next 30 to 40 years. So it seems to me that to say that we don't want to see if we can extract the carbon dioxide that's already up in the atmosphere is to throw up our hands and say, 'To hell with the Marshall Islands and the Maldive Islands and maybe some of the coastlines of Bangladesh.'"

But Kill is not flipping quarters. She's adamant that CCS is a false solution to climate change. "It avoids confronting and being outspoken about the need for a significant overhaul in how we produce and use energy," she said. "The appeal of geological carbon sequestration is that it promises to continue using energy as wastefully as we have done and that it doesn't require any significant changes in the way we use and produce electricity."

If there's a leak

The United States has a long history of trying to bury its burdens. The government is still scratching its head over where to stow the country's mounting nuclear waste. And just like with nuclear waste, opponents say the repercussions of CO2 that refuses to stay put is potentially catastrophic.

"Environmentally, it's incredibly dangerous," said Leonard, of the Rainforest Action Network. "Carbon is something that's potentially very deadly." Leonard pointed to the disaster in Cameroon in 1986, which baffled scientists when carbon dioxide escaped from a volcanic lake and killed 1,200 people and everything else within a 15-mile radius.

Even many CCS card-carrying scientists admit that there are uncertainties in expecting geologic formations to store carbon forever. While Herzog told the Senate subcommittee that CCS is "likely to be safe [and] effective," he also said key questions were, "What is the probability of CO2 escaping from injection sites? What are the attendant risks? Can we detect leakage if it occurs?"

But the letter from the NRDC and others said the success of three CCS pilot projects "give us a great deal of confidence that CO2 can remain permanently sequestered in geological reservoirs."

The NRDC dismisses frightening visions of carbon dioxide seeping from underground, writing, "We ... caution strongly against scenarios that present leakage as inevitable, or even likely. Leakage is conceivable, but is unlikely in well-selected sites, is generally avoidable, predictable, can be detected and remedied promptly, and in any case is extremely unlikely to be of a magnitude that would endanger human health and the environment if performed under adequate regulatory oversight and according to best practices."

In an interview last month on E&E TV's OnPoint, John Venezia, an associate with the World Resources Institute's Carbon Capture and Sequestration Project, detailed what could happen "if a project is not done properly."

"If the proper siting procedures aren't done, if proper monitoring technologies aren't in place and CO2 does leak into drinking water, that's an issue of contaminating underground sources of drinking water. And in worst-case scenarios we can back up the service where it could endanger the local ecosystem or human health."

But Venezia went on to say that the "benefits of doing CCS are really to the global community as a whole."

Benefits aside, the stored carbon dioxide is like a hot potato -- nobody wants to have the liability of ensuring hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide that stays buried for hundreds of years.

"Who pays for it if there's a leak?" asked Jackson of Duke University.

Leonard thinks he knows. "[Industry has] been very upfront to Congress that there's no way that carbon sequestration will move forward unless the federal government assumes all liability for that project. It's very similar to what's happening to nuclear waste; industry is very happy to create it, but they themselves don't want to be stuck with the liability of what to do with that waste because they know it's dangerous."

The costs of CCS

Last week, Herzog told the Senate subcommittee that actually achieving greenhouse gas reductions from CCS requires 3,600 large-scale injection projects, with the possibility of more as coal burning increases. The cost of the endeavor could make Bill Gates blush.

Last month, Xcel Energy postponed construction of the nation's first CCS power plant because of cost. Xcel director Dick Kelly told the Denver Post the plant would be "way over $1 billion" and 20 percent more expensive than a conventional power plant.

Critics of CCS say the high cost of CCS technology could make electricity more expensive, while not driving down the costs of renewable energy.

"If that's the case, instead of spending an enormous amount of money sequestering that carbon, you should spend money accelerating the production of new power so you can close that plants down," Morris said.

Kill fears that investment in CCS will reduce financial commitments to renewable energy.

"With limited money, the more that's spent on technological fixes such as carbon sequestration, the less money will be available for research and development into energy storage, renewable energy and into overhauling the national electricity grid so they work best for renewable energy," Kill said.

Even if CCS becomes cheap, and scientists guarantee carbon dioxide will stay buried, some critics still won't be swayed. They say that although CCS addresses greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn't look at the ramifications of mining and shipping coal, and of the pollutants that are still released in the air during burning.

Although industry is marketing CCS as a "clean coal" technology, Leonard says the term is a misnomer, and that nothing about coal is clean.

"The idea of clean coal never addresses the impact of coal's entire lifecycle," Leonard said. "Coal mining is one of the most destructive environmental atrocities in this country or globally. They only address clean coal at its final stage of combustion at the power plant."

One destructive coal mining technique is mountaintop removal, a process where forests are clear-cut and the tops of mountains are blasted away with explosives to expose underlying layers of coal. The method has decimated the mountains and environment of Appalachia and produced devastating impacts on the health of communities.

Both Leonard and Kill fear that CCS will only spur more coal mining, not curb it.

"[CCS] distracts from the real task at hand, and that real task at hand is leaving a large proportion of fossil fuels that are still in the ground where they are," Kill said.

Kill said transitioning away from fossil fuels is possible with dedicated public investment in renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies. But in continuing down the path toward CCS, she said, "It's very likely that a trade-off will have to be made, and unfortunately it's clear that the trade-off will be to the disadvantage of the decentralized renewable energies we believe hold much more promise than this technological fix that may or may not work."

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