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.