Carbon Capture and Sequestration: The Preferred Solution of Policy Makers (1/12/10)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Joey Fiore is reprinted from the January/February 2010 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

As the weight of December’s UN Climate Change Conference bore down on policy makers this fall, climate change legislation heated up.  With the stage set for a host of climate countering options, carbon capture and sequestration initiatives played a prominent role in legislation from all corners of Congress and the world.  There remain, however, many questions to be answered about this young enterprise, with technology still in its relatively early phases and full scale demonstrations of the complete process yet to be undertaken.  Is large scale deployment of this venture feasible?  Do its potential benefits outweigh its known challenges and potential problems?  And if so, are policy makers providing enough support to actually make its application successful?

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is a process by which carbon dioxide (CO2) is removed from the atmosphere and stored, primarily underground in a geologic repository. The goal is to remove CO2, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, from the atmosphere.  It has gained so much favor in recent years as it stands to store potentially decades to even centuries worth of CO2, while reducing global CO2 emissions by up to twenty percent, and doing so in a manner potentially much cheaper in the long run than alternative climate combating measures.  In addition, CCS allows for the continued use of coal-fired power plants around the world.  There are three options for capturing CO2 from a point source.  The first two involve cleaning and separating the CO2 either by pre or post combustion capture and the third involves burning the coal in pure oxygen, so the only by-product is pure CO2.    

For sequestration in underground geologic repositories, the CO2 is liquefied and transported to the injection site.  Continental sites include oil and gas fields in which CO2 can also be used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), deep saline formations, and mineral storage in which the CO2 reacts with magnesium or calcium to form solid carbonates.  Marine sites include deep sediments and hydrate formations or storage as bicarbonates through mineral reactions.  Problems associated with sequestration include leakage, groundwater contamination, costs, known and unknown technological challenges, the amount of energy required for sequestration and local community acceptance of any particular storage site.

Despite these issues, expectations are high for the role CCS should play in mitigating climate change.  The International Energy Agency prepared a Technology Roadmap for CCS deployment, listing it as one of the most inexpensive options to combat climate change and prescribing 100 large scale CCS projects globally by 2020 and 3000 projects by 2050.  The IPCC advocated for CCS, indicating a potential for 220-2200 Giga-tons of total CO2 sequestered by CCS cumulatively by 2100.  Estimates between the two groups range between 30-70% overall savings in climate-related spending with CCS.

The U.S. government is making significant investments in research, development and deployment (RDD) of CCS.  The Department of Energy (DOE) has initiated several small projects in CCS in the past and is now accelerating and expanding their projects with a one-time boost of $3.4 billion in stimulus funds for 2009.  Although only a small fraction of the $3.4 billion is specifically devoted to CCS,   Secretary of Energy Steven Chu is a staunch advocate and would like to see greater investments in the future.  Many in Congress support CCS RDD and are including investments in the technology in appropriations, in energy bills and in climate change measures.  The Waxman-Markey climate change bill (H.R. 2454) passed by the House of Representatives features a full subtitle for CCS, including provisions for overcoming “barriers” to commercialization of the process, regulation of geologic storage, and significant support for early developers of CCS.  Incentives would include bonuses for the first 6,000 megawatts produced, in addition to grants for new CCS research and subsidies for continued development of CCS beyond early adopters.  The corresponding Senate legislation, the Kerry-Boxer bill, increases the bonuses for early adopters from the first 6,000 to the first 20,000 megawatts produced, in addition to a $10 billion early demonstration program, and similar subsidies to the House bill.  Beyond the support and incentives, CCS is becoming an essential technology in climate change legislation because it is key to the success of any cap and trade system.

Large-scale deployment of CCS is essential for the long-range plans of international and American decision-makers, however the technology remains uncertain and untested.  Few CCS systems have approached commercial scale, and challenges are likely to delay or even stop projects.  CCS deployment so far in the U.S. has consisted of a series of sequestration projects and a handful of small scale capture and storage exhibits.  Seven regional partnerships established by the DOE are testing the viability of different geologic storage options.  One project in North Dakota pumps its CO2 through a pipeline to Canada, where it is used in EOR.  The first CCS project at a coal-fired power plant in the U.S. began in September of this year in a region of West Virginia known as “Megawatt Alley”.  Funded by private investors, this project plans to store just 1.5 percent of the emissions from the plant, but could potentially be ramped up to ninety percent emissions capture in the future.  A commercial scale project called FutureGen, in Mattoon, Illinois, plans to be a coal-fueled, near-zero emissions power plant that produces hydrogen and other useful byproducts. FutureGen will cost an estimated $1.5 billion to develop from public and private funds and the hope is that it will be a model for new power plants that can continue to take advantage of America’s abundant coal resources, while producing useful byproducts such as hydrogen. Additional funding exists from the DOE’s Clean Coal Power Initiative, which is now selecting CCS projects for its third round of funding. 

Many other nations are supporting CCS RDD through public and private funds.  CCS will likely prove to be most important in developing nations such as China, which has large coal resources and is working to develop CCS on new coal-fired power plants. While CCS advocates argue that much greater support is necessary to get the technology “over the hump” in the immediate future, it is unclear whether any level of support can ensure the  expectations for CCS in meeting national and international targets on emissions reductions.  Research, technological advances and large-scale testing are still needed and the time scales of these advances are uncertain. Nevertheless, CCS has many advantages that explain the push of policy makers for its development. CCS can be cost-effective compared to other mitigation solutions, it allows the world to continue using abundant coal resources and it can reduce CO2 emissions.  Suffice to say, it is reasonable to expect that the carbon genie might actually be put back in the bottle.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted January 12, 2010

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