Capturing and storing carbon: Is it worth it?
By Stefanie Heerwig

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Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been widely heard about, widely demonized but also widely misunderstood. President Barack Obama has incorporated it as one of the main actions by the U.S. in the fight against climate change. Research in the field has been immense, though many questions are still open.

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Is CCS a viable option for the energy industry?
  • Yes
  • No

CCS is basically the idea that the fossil fuel industry could carry on forever because we can trap carbon dioxide first by capturing it with help of a wide range of technologies, then by compressing and transporting it and injecting it into deep underground stone rock formations.

Recently, "Capturing Carbon: The Weapon in the War Against Climate Change" by Robin Mills fell into my hands, and I thought about how viable CCS is for the U.S. energy industry in reality. For those who are not familiar with the technology behind it, I won't go much into depth here, but I recommend an overview by the Environmental Protection Agency. What I really want to address are the pros and cons of CCS, referring to Mill's book but also CCS demonizers.

What are the cons?

CCS demonizers sound convincing, and their imagery can be frightening if not apocalyptic. Pointing at the danger of leakages from carbon storage, one critique I read referred to the disaster at Lake Nyos in the African country of Cameroon back in 1986 where 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock died as volcanic activity suddenly released pockets of carbon dioxide from the depth of the lake. Who wouldn't fear such scenarios — being asphyxiated within seconds?

The same critique also stressed the inability of BP to immediately stop the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, questioning how the industry is able to run such a complex technology if it does not manage to stop an oil leakage.

Making such references, though, is like comparing apples and pears, considering these incidents happened in a completely different context, unrelated to CCS. In the case of the Nyos disaster, carbon dioxide naturally accumulated 700 feet below the surface of the lake in unusually high concentrations. In the case of CCS, however, carbon dioxide is stored a thousand times deeper, far away from any populated areas and not necessarily in such high concentrations. Also, before injecting the climate-threatening gas, extended geological surveys ensure the safety of the project as much as possible.

And, even if an accident would happen, how severe is the impact of such an accident compared to the long-term impacts of climate change including a possible rise of the sea-water level of up to 23 inches by the year 2100, threatening the lives of 100 million U.S. citizens who live within 3 feet of mean sea level and many more globally?

Putting such myths aside, there are still real downsides to CCS. For instance, up until now it has not been proven whether the technology can be deployed on such a large scale. The costs and efforts for the industry and taxpayers might be out of scale compared to the possible gains. For instance, the most adequate carbon storage sites are not evenly scattered across the globe and the U.S., which means carbon dioxide would have to be transported for long distances to storage sites.

Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, Canada, points out that to capture just a fifth of the current carbon dioxide emissions, the world "would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation-storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry."

And according to MIT's Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies program, there are currently only six projects under way, of which five are still in the planning phase; and eight projects have already been canceled including BP's multibillion dollar CCS project in Carson, Calif.

Equally, even though carbon dioxide leakages won't necessarily happen, if they happen, who would be responsible? The state? The industry (even after carbon-dioxide has been stored for hundreds of years)?

On another note, as we would have to take the common responsibility for any accident with CCS, we also have to take the common responsibility for the impacts of climate change. And this leads to the huge potential pros of CCS.

What are the pros?

CCS could be one of the most effective measures for fighting climate change at the same time as ensuring energy security. Currently over 60 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from 8,000 large-scale stationary sources, such as coal- and gas-fired power plants and industrial sites — all of which could be subjected to CCS.

Moreover, when you take into account some of the downsides of renewable energy, CCS could be crucial to ensure energy security and supply for the U.S.. Mills points out that it is very unlikely that renewables will dominate energy supply in time to tackle climate change and that the maintenance of the electricity grid is almost impossible using only alternative energy sources as wind and solar power. In short, coal- and gas-powered generating stations can be run everywhere, independent of whether there is sun or wind available locally, and with regular supply, unlike the peaks and troughs of wind and solar.

CCS could be a core part of a viable synergy between fossil fuel and alternative energy sources. This would prop up the U.S. energy network and allow it to exploit its comparative and growing cost advantage in fossil fuels in a sustainable and secure way, even with the possibility of guaranteeing U.S. energy independence in the long term. Choosing CCS does not have to mean that renewable energy sources have to be excluded, something that the mainstream, according to Mills, often overlooks.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that CCS methods are anyhow already in use in a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR), which increases the amount of oil recovered in a field by 25 percent. Battelle, a nonprofit research and development organization has just announced the beginning of a large-scale carbon dioxide injection in the oil fields of Michigan's Northern Reef Trend. Other industrial-scale storage projects like this are already in operation, such as the Weyburn EOR project in Canada, the InSalah project in Algeria and the Sleipner project in Norway's North Sea.

Is it worth it?

Yes it is, and it also might not be. But how do we know if we do not try? One of Mills' main argument is that we need large-scale testing of CCS now before it is too late and the impacts of climate change take insurmountable (human) costs.

The pragmatic point by Mills about the costs and scale of CCS might convince you that it is doomed to fail. But it might be wrong to condemn the technology purely on ideological grounds. The green lobby argues that CCS is not truly a sustainable alternative because it allows the fossil fuel industry to continue its business and could be used by politicians to divert resources away from renewables (In fact, as stated, renewables could be combined with CCS).

Even if the green lobby might be right, why should we not try to implement further large-scale tests of CCS in the face of what we will lose through climate change?

Stefanie Heerwig is a research consultant in the energy sector. She has contributed to a series of papers on "oil-to-cash" and fossil-fuel subsidy reforms that are about to be published by the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based think-tank. She holds a BA (Hons) degree in economics and politics from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.