When the matter of ‘burying coal’ comes up, people naturally raise the question of whether we can dig coal up, burn it to access the energy it contains, and then return the climate-harming greenhouse gases (GHGs) it contained underground. This basic idea is called carbon capture and storage (CCS). Many people have high hopes for it as a climate change mitigation strategy. For users of fossil fuels, it seems to offer a route forward that doesn’t involve a fundamental change in what fuels we use. For environmentalists, it offers a way to reduce emissions from coal-rich states like China and the United States without asking them to take the politically difficult step of shutting down their coal industries. Paired with facilities burning biomass, CCS could even allow for negative emissions, since plants would draw carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air which would eventually be sequestered underground.

While I have argued before that it would be irresponsible to ignore CCS completely, I also think it is very important to remain aware of the risks and uncertainties. In short, we don’t know for sure whether CCS will be able to keep GHGs underground indefinitely. We don’t know whether CCS facilities will pose risks for humans or other living things in the vicinity. We don’t know how much CCS will cost, or even whether coal with CCS will actually be cheaper than renewable options like concentrating solar or wind. If coal with CCS doesn’t end up being cheaper than those, it is surely a less appealing option, since it still includes the air and water pollution that accompanies coal mining, as well as the habitat destruction, mercury emissions, etc. There are also big questions about how quickly CCS can be deployed, even if it works perfectly and is affordable. If we are going to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to be phasing out coal without CCS on the timescale of a couple of decades. The enormous volumes of gas that would need to be seperated from power plant emissions, transported, and buried make it questionable how much of a role CCS can effectively play in that.

A further uncertainty is that the promise of CCS at some future point could serve to justify the continuance of the status quo. As The Economist pointed out:

CCS is not just a potential waste of money. It might also create a false sense of security about climate change, while depriving potentially cheaper methods of cutting emissions of cash and attention—all for the sake of placating the coal lobby.

Utilities that are based around coal-fired electrical production can argue that they will retrofit their plants at some future point, while simultaneously seeking delays in the implementation of carbon pricing and taxpayer dollars directed towards the investments that they – as the polluters – should really be funding.

In short, it seems like research into CCS should be permitted and even encouraged, given that it could be one of a suite of technologies that helps us to stabilize the climate. That said, citizens should not mistake vague promises to use CCS in the future for being akin to real emissions reductions now. They should also be wary of utility firms that want to make others pay for their pollution: if not by suffering the effects of climate change, then by paying for the equipment necessary for avoiding it.

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. March 23, 2010 at 11:00 am

Even if a coal-fired power plant sequestered 100 percent of its carbon pollution, it would not be “clean.” Even if, as Khosla says, it sequestered all its carbon pollution and helped abate carbon pollution from other sources, it still wouldn’t be “clean.”

Getting coal out of the ground is horrifically destructive to both ecosystems and human communities. Washing coal to prepare it for transport leaves behind multi-million gallon pools of toxic slurry, which regularly fail and flood nearby communities. Transporting coal is a carbon-intensive and destructive undertaking in itself. In Appalachia, gigantic trucks careen downhill on narrow roads carrying enormous coal loads trailing toxic dust. Coal trains also lock up most of the country’s rail infrastructure, which could otherwise be used for low-carbon freight shipping.

Burning coal is also horrific. It leaves behind enormous quantities of heavy metal-laden coal ash, often in uncovered impoundments, from which ash drifts onto local communities. (Some coal ash is used in concrete too, but that doesn’t make it clean either.) In fact, efforts in recent decades to scrub air pollutants out of smokestacks in response to Clean Air Act requirements have led to more coal ash, as pollutants are effectively transferred from the air to the ash, where they are far less strictly regulated.”

. April 26, 2010 at 12:18 pm

“A new research paper from American academics is threatening to blow a hole in growing political support for carbon capture and storage as a weapon in the fight against global warming.

The document from Houston University claims that governments wanting to use CCS have overestimated its value and says it would take a reservoir the size of a small US state to hold the CO2 produced by one power station.

Previous modelling has hugely underestimated the space needed to store CO2 because it was based on the “totally erroneous” premise that the pressure feeding the carbon into the rock structures would be constant, argues Michael Economides, professor of chemical engineering at Houston, and his co-author Christene Ehlig-Economides, professor of energy engineering at Texas A&M University

“It is like putting a bicycle pump up against a wall. It would be hard to inject CO2 into a closed system without eventually producing so much pressure that it fractured the rock and allowed the carbon to migrate to other zones and possibly escape to the surface,” Economides said.

The paper concludes that CCS “is not a practical means to provide any substantive reduction in CO2 emissions, although it has been repeatedly presented as such by others.”

Chapman pointed out that Statoil, a Norwegian oil company, had been injecting CO2 into an old reservoir on the North Sea Sleipner field for some time as a successful experiment in carbon storage. But Economides says the Sleipner scheme involved a million tonnes over three years, while one 500mW commercial station would need to absorb and store 3m tonnes annually for 25 years.Economides, who admits he veers towards being something of a climate change sceptic, says the oil and coal industries see these schemes as potential solutions so they can keep on doing what they have been doing in the past, but “CCS is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” he said.”

. August 3, 2011 at 7:25 pm

ENVIRONMENT Under fire over emissions, Alberta goes ahead with carbon capture plan

JOSH WINGROVE EDMONTON Alberta thrives on the strength of its oil and gas sector, while coal keeps the province’s lights on – as such, in an era where many demand lower emissions, the province is a carbon giant looking to change its ways.

Choking the output of those industries, however, could be economically devastating. So rather than limiting the actual amount produced, the province has pinned its hopes on a process known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), which would see carbon collected and buried deep below ground.

On Wednesday afternoon, Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert announced a final agreement on its third such CCS project. The province promised $2-billion in seed money three years ago, but only this year has approved projects.

Calgary-based Swan Hills Synfuels LP aims to use an unproven method, coal gasification, to reach 1.4-kilometre-deep coal deposits in central Alberta, convert them to gas underground, capture the emissions before they ever see daylight and use the gaseous coal to run a power plant.

The new plant would serve a whopping 300,000 homes while producing one-third the emissions of a similarly sized regular coal plant – or about the same carbon output as a natural-gas plant.

. November 3, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Geo-engineering technology to absorb climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere can be rolled out by 2018, the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) said.

The institution is demonstrating the air capture technology on Wednesday evening on a small scale as the UK government and academics meet to discuss its potential.

The device, resembling a giant fly swat, is a thousand times more effective at absorbing carbon dioxide from the air than a tree of about the same size, according to the IME, whose members are developing it.

Once captured, the CO2 could be used in industrial processes or safely stored underground.

“Apart from being a vital technology for dealing with difficult-to-manage emissions like those from aviation and shipping, this technology could also be a vital tool for setting a definitive price for CO2,” said Tim Fox, head of environment at the institution.

. November 22, 2011 at 12:32 pm
. May 14, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Klaus Lackner, a physicist at Columbia University, started talking about this a decade ago. Peter Eisenberger, also of Columbia, and David Keith, until recently of the University of Calgary, in Canada, and now at Harvard, have taken up the idea as well. All three have formed companies aimed at doing it, with the help of some intrigued billionaires. Dr Lackner was patronised by the late Gary Comer, founder of Lands’ End, a large clothing company. Dr Eisenberger’s backer is Edgar Bronfman, whose fortune came from Seagram, a now defunct distiller. And Dr Keith has Bill Gates.

But there is a limit to what even an enthusiastic green billionaire can afford—and many observers think that air capture lies well beyond it. A report published last year by the American Physical Society (APS) put the cost of extracting and storing carbon dioxide using an air-capture system based on known technology at between $600 and $800 a tonne. That is about 80 times the current price of European carbon credits. At such prices it would take tens of trillions of dollars to deal with a year’s worth of carbon-dioxide emissions. And some think the APS’s estimates of costs are on the low side.

It was in large part to argue about that estimate that air-capture enthusiasts and their critics met in Calgary on March 7th-8th. The discussions were detailed, mostly civil, sometimes heated. They did not arrive at a meeting of minds, but they did demonstrate that the way people think about air capture is shifting. What was once seen as a way of tucking CO2 away for good is now increasingly thought of as a way of packaging it up for people willing to pay for it—including oil companies eager to sell more oil.

. November 12, 2013 at 11:59 am

“But there is an energy paradox with CCS. Any coal-fired power plant, oil refinery, or bitumen upgrader equipped to handle CCS will pay a huge energy penalty: it will have to burn anywhere from 25 to 32 percent more fossil fuels. Stripping and compressing CO2 is not cheap. This form of energy cannibalism also requires nearly a third more water and a third more chemicals. And the penalty doesn’t include the energy costs of retrofitting these plants. Moreover, to bury just 20 percent of the world’s emissions, calculates energy expert Vaclav Smil, we would need to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering/compression-transportation/storage industry. That industry’s annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the entire global crude oil industry, whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations, and storage systems took generations and about $60 trillion to build. Monitoring CO2 cemeteries would require more energy and public funds for thousands of years.”

Nikiforuk, Andrew. The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. 2012. p.172 (hardcover)

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