Questioning Carbon Capture and Storage

by |March 14, 2016

By Christopher Cadham

Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are over 400ppm, higher than possibly the last 25 million years. Carbon capture and storage provides unprecedented opportunities to reduce emissions from a wide range of industries and our fossil fuel dependent power sector, but we must consider some meaningful questions when deciding where and for what purpose we use this technology.

Carbon capture has appeared in the news a lot lately. In Norway the first carbon capture and storage project at a garbage incinerator is well underway. And in the United Kingdom, the government ended a £1 billion contest they were holding to promote the development of carbon capture and storage systems in the power sector. The contest, first proposed in 2005 and just six months away from awarding the prize money, was abruptly canceled by the government and buried in the November spending review. The Committee on Climate Change, an independent body responsible for advising the Houses of Parliament on climate change strategy, has warned that this will make the carbon-cutting goals agreed to in Paris harder and more expensive.

Currently, 15 major carbon capture and storage projects are active, with another seven nearing completion worldwide. Once all 22 projects are up and running, they will remove approximately 40 million tons per year of CO2. In order to make a viable difference in contributing to keeping warming below 2 degrees, the amount captured must be scaled up to the billions of tons per year.

Fossil fuel stopgap

The controversy in the UK is not the only one. In Mississippi, the Kemper County Project, a full-scale carbon capture and storage coal plant, has faced serious delays and even greater costs. The plant would capture 65 percent of the emissions from its 582 MW producing coal generators (approximately 3.5 million tons of CO2 annually) and pipe that offsite for onshore-enhanced oil recovery. The original project was supposed to be completed by early 2014 and cost $2.4 billion; instead, its price tag is currently $6.6 billion. To make matters worse, Mississippi Power has already had to repay $133 million to the federal government because it missed the original deadline. If the project is not completed by April 19, 2016, the company will have to return $234 million to the IRS.

But, with exorbitant costs, missed deadlines and lack of political support, why is there such a focus on carbon capture and storage? The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called carbon capture and storage a critical element in the plan to halt runaway warming. Any investment in this technology needs to be compared to the over $1 trillion investment into the extraction and transport of fossil fuels every year. The International Energy Agency predicts that investment in energy will be more than $48 trillion between 2013 and 2035, with $23 trillion of this being invested into fossil fuel extraction, transportation and oil refining.

This predicted investment underpins the International Energy Agency’s forecast that carbon-based sources of power are going to be the main sources of energy until at least 2030, despite the expected growth of renewables. With 1.5 billion people in the developing world currently living without power and that number rapidly shrinking, energy consumption around the globe will continue to skyrocket. Coal and other carbon-based sources of energy represent the cheapest ways for countries to power their electrical grids. Coal currently makes up 29 percent of the world’s global energy. While the European Union and United States shift away from coal, it is becoming an even more prominent source of power in Asia, most notably in India and China. Because of this massive reliance on coal, carbon capture and storage is seen as the best way to counteract the massive amount of emissions produced at these plants.

Boundary Dam Power Station, Saskatchewan. Image courtesy of SaskPower

Boundary Dam Power Station, Saskatchewan. Image courtesy of SaskPower

Saskpower, the provincial electricity provider in Saskatchewan, Canada has developed the Boundary Dam Project. This is the world’s first post-combustion, coal-fired carbon capture and storage project and will reduce CO2 emissions from the 115 megawatt generator by one million tons for $1.3 billion (CAD). Taking a critical approach, Ben Caldecott writes, “It would be hard to argue that resorting to highly uncertain [carbon capture and storage] prior to undertaking a variety of mitigation options would be an economically or socially desirable course of action.”

Necessary stopgap or delay tactic?

An additional problem arises when considering what to do with the carbon once it has been captured. Ideally, carbon is pumped into geological formations where it will remain. However, more than half of the operational or planned large-scale carbon capture projects expect to use their captured carbon for enhanced oil or gas recovery. While proponents of carbon capture and storage in power production see this as a beneficial way to help balance the budget of these billion dollar projects, analyses run by Grist and by Paulina Jaramillo suggest that the benefits of carbon capture and storage are outweighed by the increased consumption of fossil fuels that this provides.

Saskpower outlines some compelling arguments for advancing carbon capture and storage. Coal is cheap, plentiful and reliable, and the coal industry is not going anywhere. Projects like Boundary Dam allow this relatively cheap source of power to continue burning even with the rise in regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. These technologies also provide more time to transition away from fossil fuels. However, those who see fossil fuels as the enemy would argue that this does nothing to solve the bigger problem at hand. Instead, it just prolongs our dependence on fossil fuels.

The discussion reflects a schism that exists among environmentalists today. Many see carbon capture and storage as an attempt to extend the life of coal and increase the production of oil. They see the main purpose of carbon capture and storage as greenwashing the darkest industry rather than supporting a switch to renewable sources of energy that will not require carbon capture and storage. Other environmentalists who have been calling for carbon capture and storage for decades see it as an important move in the right direction. Still others say people have become so distracted by the attempts to reduce emissions in the power sector that they have forgotten the rest of the economy. The greatest promise of carbon capture and storage comes from integration into industry like the Klemetsrud incinerator in Norway or in conjunction with bioenergy.

Klemetsrud Incinerator in Oslo, Norway. Image courtesy of Erlend Bjørtvedt / WikiMedia Commons

Klemetsrud Incinerator in Oslo, Norway. Image courtesy of Erlend Bjørtvedt / WikiMedia Commons

Beyond fossil fuels

The Klemetsrud is a key development in that 60 percent of the 213,500 tons of waste it burns is made of organic matter, and by capturing the carbon produced from a natural cycle, it creates what is called negative emissions. Negative emissions represent a crucial opportunity to produce a net reduction in atmospheric carbon. This has considerable implications for the energy industry. By using bioenergy with carbon capture and storage in conjunction with a plan that aggressively develops renewables and cuts fossil-fuel emissions, a study in Nature Climate Change found that western North America could have a 145 percent reduction of emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. Yet, the notion that biomass emissions are truly carbon neutral is hotly debated. There are a number of underlying assumptions that can drastically alter these predictions. Despite this, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage represents an important tool in efforts to reach our growing demand for energy within a fixed carbon budget. The majority of integrated assessment model scenarios in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlight negative emissions projects, particularly the use of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, as an important tool to mitigate climate change. This technology allows for higher interim CO2 concentrations and long-term stabilization.

Carbon capture and storage also has a place outside the energy industry. Two large-scale industrial carbon capture and storage plants are expected to come online this year: one in Illinois at the Arthur Daniels Midlands corn to ethanol production facility, and one at the Emirates Steel plant in Abu Dhabi. At the Paris Climate Agreement, 16 of the largest cement companies backed a shift towards the use of de-carbonization technologies such as carbon capture and storage.

In her work on carbon capture and storage, Sally Benson and her co-authors write that the recent emphasis on carbon capture and storage to reduce emissions from coal power production is “too narrow a vision.” Debates like this one on carbon capture and storage are extremely important; there is a need to consider who is promoting certain mitigation strategies and why, but we cannot get bogged down by thinking of applications for one sector alone. Instead, we must consider how technological solutions can apply across sectors to help meet the climate challenge.

While carbon capture and storage for coal will and should continue to be hotly debated, it cannot be allowed to detract from the application of these technologies to industries such as cement, steel, waste management and biofuels. Despite the promise of carbon capture and storage for industrial applications, there is a continued lack of political will to support the high costs for development. Only time will tell if the UK will reinvest in carbon capture and storage for industrial applications.

Christopher Cadham is a MPH student at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and an intern at the Columbia Climate Center.


Read more from State of the Planet on the Earth Institute’s contributions to research and innovation in the field of carbon capture and storage:


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