Recapturing Carbon Won't Come Cheap

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Feb 9 (IPS) - Putting climate-altering greenhouse 
gases back in the ground where they came from is an essential part of 
any global plan to avoid catastrophic climate change, scientists say.

Capturing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and 
pumping the global warming gas deep underground or under the sea "may 
well be the most critical challenge we face, at least for the next 
100 years," writes Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University's 
Centre for the Environment, in the journal Science Friday.

Coal is, and will continue to be, a major source of the world's 
energy and emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), writes Schrag in the 
report "Preparing to Capture Carbon".

"By the end of the century, coal could account for more than 80 
percent" of all CO2 emissions -- double the present level -- he 

Coal produces nearly twice as many emissions as natural gas, but coal 
is cheaper, and vast quantities are available and in the right 
places. The enormous and growing energy needs of the United States, 
India and China are matched by their even larger reserves of coal. It 
seems inevitable that thousands of new coal-fired power plants will 
be built.

Schrag is just one of a host of scientists, politicians, business 
leaders and even environmental groups who want to lower the amounts 
of CO2 going into the atmosphere by capturing and storing it.

"We cannot stabilise the global climate without India and China 
reducing their future emissions," says Robert Watson, chief scientist 
and director of Sustainable Development at the World Bank.

The industrialised countries will have to work with India and China 
on carbon capture and storage technologies, Watson said at a press 
conference Thursday.

Mary Griffiths, senior policy analyst at the Pembina Institute, an 
environmental group in Calgary, Alberta, adds, however, that "Carbon 
capture and storage is not our first choice for reducing emissions."

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) doesn't even come in second or 
third. Caps on CO2 emissions, energy efficiency, renewable energy and 
conservation are better ways to tackle the problem, she said.

"Avoiding dangerous climate change is a major challenge and therefore 
we need to use all the tools that are available," Griffiths told IPS.

And one of those tools is the much-touted -- and much-maligned -- 
"clean" coal technology.

Capturing CO2 from coal plants requires special processing of the 
coal with chemicals or through a gasification process. Both processes 
require extra energy and boost costs by as much as 50 percent, 
according to Schrag. Then the CO2 has to be pressurised, transported 
and pumped into a deep underground location.

Studies show there is potentially enough underground storage 
capacity, but there is limited data on whether such sites would leak 
and by how much. Schrag estimates that millions and eventually as 
much as 10 billion tonnes of CO2 per year will need to stay where 
they are put for "the next few millennia".

One leak-proof storage option is injecting CO2 below the sea floor 
but that would be very expensive.

There are no commercial-scale CCS examples but there are a few test 
sites demonstrating that it is technically feasible. One such site is 
in Norway, where about one million tonnes of CO2 is pumped into 
saline aquifers a kilometre below the bed of the North Sea.

The world's largest existing project has pumped five million tonnes 
of CO2 over four years into an old oil field in Weyburn, Saskatchewan 
in Canada to help pump put out more oil. The CO2 comes from a North 
Dakota coal gasification plant 325 kilometres away. This is a 
40-million-dollar research effort funded by Canada, Europe, Japan and 
the United States.

There are also safety issues. CO2 is heavier than air and a large gas 
cloud could be lethal, as happened in a natural catastrophe at Lake 
Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 that killed 1,700 people.

Aside from the many environmental impacts of the coal industry as a 
whole, the most controversial aspect of CCS for coal power is who is 
going to pay for the development and additional ongoing costs.

"Governments shouldn't be making major investments in CCS, companies 
should be doing it," Griffiths argued.

Governments should put CO2 emissions caps in place, and that would 
create a market for investing in CCS, she said.

At the moment there are no such emissions caps in North America. In 
Europe, caps are in place, but the price of CO2 is well below the per 
tonne costs of CCS. That, plus uncertainty about future caps and 
liability regarding leaks, means companies are unlikely to make the 
long-term investments that are needed, notes Schrag.

FutureGen is the George W. Bush administration's much promoted effort 
to build the first commercial-scale near-emission-free coal power 
technology. Announced in 2003, the billion-dollar, public-private 
project has yet to find a site to build the plant.

SaskPower, a government power utility in Canada, could beat FutureGen 
as the world's first near-emission-free coal power plant. The 
300-megawatt plant -- more than enough to supply a city of 200,000 -- 
could begin construction as early as this year.

However, none of these projects are guaranteed to work. Indeed energy 
experts still think CO2-free coal plants, if feasible at all, are 
well into the future.

Coal will not become carbon-free for another one or two decades, Wulf 
Bernotat, chief executive of the major German utility E.ON, told 
Reuters this week. E.ON is involved in several CCS projects around 
the world, but Bernotat said there are additional energy and 
financial requirements, as well as technical and legal problems to be 

Europe's coal plants are investing in efficiency improvements first. 
But those five and 10 percent improvements won't be enough to avoid 
catastrophic climate change. The U.S. needs to encourage and sponsor 
10 to 20 full-scale CCS efforts so that there will be a number of 
documented and verifiable CCS options available, writes Schrag.

"The United States and the world need carbon sequestration -- not 
right now, but soon and at an enormous scale," he said.