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 attentionâ€”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.