Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is sometimes touted as a way to burn fossil fuels without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. While it is not entirely without promise, it certainly has issues, and it is not plausible that it could single-handedly address the problem of climate change.
One big problem with CCS is money – it costs a lot to separate CO2 from exhaust gases, compress or liquify the CO2, and then inject it underground. Cost issues recently scuppered a proposed CCS project involving Saskatchewan and Montana:
A proposed Saskatchewan-Montana carbon capture and storage project that Premier Brad Wall said nearly two years ago would “turn some heads internationally” quietly expired last fall.
The $270 million project was launched with great fanfare in a May 2009 legislature signing ceremony with Wall and Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, with the Saskatchewan Party government pledging up to $50 million and looking for investment from the Canadian and United States governments.
But, Rob Norris, minister responsible for SaskPower, said Wednesday “those talks have been discontinued” because Ottawa turned down the province’s request for $100 million last year.
The federal decision was made after the United States government made clear it would not put in the $100 million US for the project requested by Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, said Norris.
That isn’t to say that CCS will never be an affordable option for climate change mitigation. Rather, it suggests that the idea that CCS will be able to automatically deal with the problem of greenhouse gas pollution is overly optimistic.
It is also worth noting that companies that want government subsidies to fund their CCS operations are basically saying that the general public should pay the cost of dealing with their pollution. It is probably sensible for the government to support basic research and development, but it seems unjust to finance the commercial operation of CCS-equipped facilities, should any ever be built.
CCS has other significant limitations as well. It isn’t guaranteed that the gases will stay underground, they could migrate up into aquifers or back into the atmosphere. CCS also cannot be applied to mobile sources of emissions (like vehicles) or diffuse sources of emissions (like in situ oil sands extraction). CCS also leaves us with the other non-climate problems associated with fossil fuels, like the toxins produced when they are burned or the awkward geopolitical situations they put countries into.