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Is Carbon-Capture Technology the Solution to Climate Change?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

This week, the world’s leaders are gathering in Lima, Peru, for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, where they hope to put together a plan for cutting global emissions that will slow the inexorable warming of the planet.

The convention follows a deal reached last month by the United States and China — the globe’s top two polluters — to cut their emissions. For China, this means capping its emissions at whatever rate they hit in 2030, while the U.S. pledges to reduce its emissions by 26% to 28% of its 2005 levels by 2025.

Before we all stifle a yawn at the prospect of reading yet another treatise on the unlikelihood of the world actually agreeing to anything beyond a set of useless platitudes, know that there is another way of going about the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere, and that is carbon capture and storage.

CCS, as it’s known in the industry, involves sequestering waste carbon dioxide from oil and gas or coal mining operations, pipelining it to a storage facility, and then injecting the CO2 underground in order to prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere.

U.S. oil companies have known about the technology since the 1970s, but it has taken four decades for a commercially-viable “clean coal” project to get out the gate. The launch of that project occurred in the first week of October in Saskatchewan, Canada, with the opening of the Boundary Dam carbon capture and storage facility.

Sited in the small town of Estevan, Sask, and run by SaskPower, the plant is the world’s first large-scale clean-coal power plant. CO2 generated by burning coal from a 50-year-old coal power plant is moved by pipeline to nearby oil fields, where it will be used for enhanced oil recovery operations.

The facility which cost $1.4 billion is proof that the dream of “clean coal” and “carbon sequestration” isn’t dead, although it certainly seemed that way for a while.

Seen as a viable solution to rising greenhouse gases that would both cut carbon and avoid the business-unfriendly alternative of reducing output from fossil-fuel operations, a few years ago Western governments went all-in to support CCS.

Germany, a major coal consumer, introduced legislation that would transfer liability from companies to the state, for firms that injected CO2 underground. But the law failed to pass due to public concerns over possible leaks.

Norwegian company Statoil ASA has a technology that separates CO2 from natural gas at three processing sites in Norway and Algeria, before storing it underground in oil and gas reservoirs. But the company says the process is too expensive to run without government subsidies.

In 2011, the United States invested $1 billion into energy company FutureGen Alliance to create a clean-coal facility that used CCS. Four years ago Southern Co started building a large-scale CCS plant that would generate 582 megawatts from lignite coal, but cost estimates have since tripled and the project is now in jeopardy, according to a report by Bloomberg.

In Canada, the Alberta government set aside $2 billion for four carbon capture and storage projects that would help reduce greenhouse gases from oil sands, but the present government views the cost to bury carbon as too high. Current Alberta Premier Jim Prentice calls CCS “a science experiment.” It’s quite likely the Boundary Dam project would have never seen the light of day had it not been for a $240-million government subsidy.

The Bloomberg piece calculates the cost of fitting all the world’s power stations with carbon-capture technology at about $17.6 trillion.

But that doesn’t mean we should give up on the technology. The International Energy Agency views CCS as a central pillar in efforts to arrest climate change, stating on October 1 that it believes carbon-capture will account for a sixth of required emissions reductions by 2050. Without it, the IEA says over two-thirds of proven fossil-fuel reserves can’t be commercialized before 2050 if global temperatures are allowed to rise less than two degrees.

Will CCS save the world from catastrophic climate change? Probably not. But at least it’s better than leaving it to dithering politicians to do something constructive. A post in Monday’s Business Insider gives a sobering picture of the recent U.S.-China climate deal. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns the only way to stay within that two-degree limit is for the world to become carbon-neutral by 2100. That means major carbon emitters like China, the U.S., India, Russia and the EU will all have to keep cutting their emissions throughout the next several decades. That seems unlikely. “Experts are increasingly pessimistic that the two-degree goal is still attainable,” BI concludes. (Wall St. Cheat Sheet)

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