Large-Scale Carbon Capture and Storage: Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved

In my opening statement on the role carbon capture and storage will play in solving the climate crisis, I focused on the economic challenge.

The Economist has now posted my “rebuttal,” which focuses on the issues of permanence, transparency, and public safety.  My bottom line:  There are simply too many unanswered questions for anyone to say today that we could rely on large-scale deployment of CCS in the 2030s as a major climate solution.

The debate will be “decided” by online voting, so do go and vote.

Here is my full rebuttal:

Barry Jones writes, “The international community aims to deliver 20 demonstration projects by 2020, applying CCS to various kinds of industrial sectors. The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.”

That would certainly be worthwhile if it happens, but the fate of humanity is going to be decided before the 2030s. So anyone who is concerned about avoiding catastrophic climate change needs to focus on deploying existing technology now as aggressively as possible.

The problem for carbon capture and storage is that, as one of the commenters points out, “every time we hear of another CCS experiment, we hear a few years later that it was discontinued, usually due to the high price”. Pretty much every major CCS project relevant to large-scale deployment at coal plants has been scaled back, delayed, or cancelled entirely recently.

This includes Futuregen 2.0, a big American CCS project, “which was long seen as the nation’s best hope for taking a worldwide lead in developing ways to capture and bury carbon dioxide from coal burning”. But as the New York Times reported earlier this month:

“Ameren, the Midwestern power company that was to be the host for the project, has told its partners that because of its financial situation, it cannot take part as promised … Ernest J. Moniz, a professor of physics at MIT and former under secretary of energy who wrote a pivotal 2007 report calling for the prompt demonstration of carbon capture technologies, said: ‘It’s only more true four years later—we can’t get one going, but we actually need more than one.'”

That echoes Howard Herzog of MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, who said in February 2008 after Futuregen 1.0 was scuttled: “How can we expect to build hundreds of these plants when we’re having so much trouble building the first one?

And then we would have the issue of whether we can “be dependent on” CCS. The problems with depending on CCS are multifold.

Let’s start with permanence and transparency. If the Russian government said it was sequestering 100m tons of CO2 in the ground permanently, and wanted other countries to pay it billions of dollars to do so, would anyone trust it? No. The potential for fraud and bribery are simply too enormous. But would anyone trust China? Would anyone trust an American utility, for that matter? We need to set up some sort of international regime for certifying, monitoring, verifying and inspecting geologic repositories of carbon—like the UN weapons inspections systems. The problem is, America has not been able to certify a single storage facility for high-level radioactive waste after two decades of trying and nobody knows how to monitor and verify underground CO2 storage. It could take a decade just to set up this system. We haven’t even started.

Then we have the leakage issue. Even a very small leakage rate of well under 1% a year would render the storage system all but useless as a “permanent repository”.

Equally worrisome, a Duke University study found: “Leaks from carbon dioxide injected deep underground to help fight climate change could bubble up into drinking water aquifers near the surface, driving up levels of contaminants in the water tenfold or more in some places.” What kind of contaminants could bubble up into drinking water aquifers? The study noted: “Potentially dangerous uranium and barium increased throughout the entire experiment in some samples.”

This problem may not turn out to be fatal to CCS, but it might well limit the places where sequestration is practical—either because the geology is problematic or because the site is simply too close to the water supply of a large population.

Public acceptance (aka NIMBY) has already been a huge problem for CCS. Public concern about CO2 leaks—small and large—has impeded a number of CCS projects around the world. The concerns should be taken seriously, as BusinessWeek reported in 2008:

“One large, coal-fired plant generates the equivalent of 3 billion barrels of CO2 over a 60-year lifetime. That would require a space the size of a major oil field to contain. The pressure could cause leaks or earthquakes, says Curt M. White, who ran the US Energy Department’s carbon sequestration group until 2005 and served as an adviser until earlier this year. ‘Red flags should be going up everywhere when you talk about this amount of liquid being put underground.'”

And concerns about earthquakes should be taken seriously, as a Stanford University report warned in December 2010:

“Combating global warming by pumping carbon dioxide into the ground for long-term storage—known as carbon sequestration—could trigger small earthquakes that might breach the storage system, allowing the gas back into the atmosphere, according to Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback. That hazard, combined with a need for thousands of injection sites around the globe, may keep sequestration from being as feasible on a large scale as some have hoped.”

There are simply too many unanswered questions for anyone to say today that we could rely on large-scale deployment of CCS in the 2030s as a major climate solution.

17 Responses to Large-Scale Carbon Capture and Storage: Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved

  1. F van Staa says:

    Time to start thinking about carbon capture by algae, and incidentally, the residual heat of a coal- or gas fired electrical generator can be used at the same time… Algae to biofuel… Small scale tests running: see

  2. Daniel C Goodwin says:

    I humbly suggest natural sequestration of hydrocarbons in original reservoirs, a.k.a. “Leave the coal in the hole.”

  3. JC says:

    I’ve never understood why ‘Planting Trees’ isn’t a good carbon sequestration methodology. Not only does it store the carbon, it produces oxygen and wood, of which we need both.

    Yes, there are forest fires. Yes, trees die and fall down.

    But instead of providing what plants use for growth, the only thing that CO2 sequestration really does it take it out of circulation.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    My sense has always been that the fossil fuel companies knew all along that CCS was doomed, and would never be viable. They are also quite aware of global warming- with the kind of money they command, they can easily access the best science on just about any subject. Bush, after all, canceled Futuregen because the data were so absurd.

    CCS is strictly a PR stunt, meant to buy more time to burn coal and gas. This should be added to their other atrocities, such as intimidating climate scientists and gaming public schools and our media.

    It really doesn’t get any worse than this. Companies like Peabody, Koch, and Exxon need to be made aware that at some point they will be held legally accountable, and charged with criminal prosecution for deliberately endangering people’s lives.

  5. fj says:

    since the oceans automatically capture half atmospheric co2 & contain abundant energy yet untapped, capable of converting it to benign — or, even better — useful forms . . .

  6. Joe Romm says:

    Gotta do a post on trees.

  7. EDpeak says:

    Can I continue to put POISON in the FOOD of your KIDS for years to come, and work on a technology to de-toxify them when your kids turn 20 or 25?

    No? Gosh, why not, are you anti-science?

    Sarcasm off from here on. To bet the FUTURE of the liveability of the planet on one type of technology, even if fully developed, would be madness.

    To bet the future of the liveability of the planet on a yet to be fully developed single type of technology, as is the case here, is criminally and suicidally insane.

    Emphasis on “criminally”

    Though we should pay attention to that other adverb, too!

  8. Dan says:

    The major reason is that planting forests takes a great deal of time before these young trees are firing on all cylinders in terms of carbon storage. (They store plenty carbon when their trunks are real chunky… not much before). And those couple of decades of having to wait is precisely what we don’t have.

  9. Charles says:

    Best to store the carbon in a form that cannot practically be mined and burned in the future.

  10. lasmog says:

    Sadly, plutocrats know they are rarely held responsible for anything; see, the Iraq War and the Wall Street bailout. Our politicians and corporate chiefs don’t fear the consequences of their actions because they don’t have to.

  11. Chad says:

    ‘My sense has always been that the fossil fuel companies knew all along that CCS was doomed”

    Of course. It’s just physics and math. Even if God himself came down and installed the equipment for free, ran it for free, and kept sure nothing ever failed, the cost of electricity coming out of the plant would rise by about 30% simply due to thermodynamic efficiency losses. Compressing CO2 uses energy, obviously. Once you factor in all the other costs a plant would face, you are looking at double cost, minimum. Factor in non-CO2 externalities, and the price is far, far higher than solar already costs.

  12. sault says:

    The upfront cost of the Antelope Valley CCS demonstration project comes out to $15 / ton CO2 IF it runs for 20 years in the best case scenario. The recurring costs could more than double this amount if CCS has any problems scaling at that location. Energy efficiency / conservation / demand management has mostly NEGATIVE CO2 abatement costs or is, at most, below $10 per ton while renewable energy costs are dropping so fast that I can’t find a current $ / ton estimate. Right now, CCS increases the generation cost to deliver a kWh of electricity by 44%. AT BEST, they could get this down to 33%. That means 33% more coal needs to be mined with 33% more mountain tops blown off, 33% more rivers and streams choked off and 33% more pristine land that needs to be cleared for new coal mines. Add in the fact that the average energy density of coal produced in the U.S. is declining as the good stuff (Anthracite) gets depleted, and the supposed 200+ year reserves in the U.S. start to look doubtful.

    Besides, just to sequester 10% of the CO2 emitted each year, the same volume of fluid that the entire oil industry pumps out of the ground as crude oil would have to be pumped back in as liquid CO2. The world’s ENTIRE oil extraction infrastructure would have to be recreated FIVE TIMES and somehow run in reverse just to capture 1/2 of the CO2 we’re dumping into the atmosphere.

    If you run your society on fossils, expect to become one yourself sooner rather than later.

  13. dbmetzger says:

    Thousands Protest Nuclear Waste Train in Germany
    Thousands of protesters in Germany try to block a train carrying nuclear waste.

  14. Lou Grinzo says:

    Excellent use of what I like to call the “magic wand” analysis. Assume a blindingly optimistic scenario, and if the technology or solution falls flat even then, it’s an excellent indicator that we’re wasting our time with it.

    Regarding CCS, I always point to the tyranny to the installed base: What portion of existing coal plants were sited and built with CCS in mind? I’d be shocked if it were more than 5%. To retrofit CCS onto the existing base of coal plants would be off-the-scale expensive. Adding the hardware to do the capture would be bad enough (plus that 30% ongoing efficiency hit you mentioned), but in many cases you’d have to add long pipelines to get the CO2 to a geologically suitable sequestration site.

  15. fj says:

    Does not seem practical using land-based carbon capture & storage while the oceans capture quite well with more than sufficient energy for finishing the process.

  16. John McCormick says:

    Lou, good comment.

    You said: “you’d have to add long pipelines to get the CO2 to a geologically suitable sequestration site.”

    How about doubling the entire US natural gas pipeline capacity to haul the CO2 to the grave yard.

  17. RSwager says:

    Yes, CCS is not economical at this time because there is no cost accounting for the environmental damages from pumping it into the air. A carbon tax or carbon credit trading would solve that problem.

    But even so, compared with the cost and technical problems with long-distance grid transmission and electrical storage necessary to make solar and wind a consistant and reliable electricity source, it is probably still competitive.

    Since no one wants huge wind tubines, acres of solar farms, nukes, CCS, and coal, rare earths or precious metal mining in their back yard, we either need to keep all options on the table, or go back to hunting and gathering.