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Can carbon-capture move us towards sustainability?

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Saskatchewan is a pioneer in carbon capture and storage (CCS) and the Sask Party government thinks this is a win-win-win: good for the economy, for the oil industry and for reducing carbon emissions. How can anything be so good? There is an international CCS consortium in Iceland and the world’s largest user of coal, China, has several test projects. With 50% of its electricity coming from coal plants, the U.S. has a few projects, notably the country’s first commercial one at the large, 1,300-MW Mountaineer coal plant at New Haven. Carbon-laden coal plants are on the short list of things that need replacing to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). But Is CCS a good bet to do this?

WHAT IS CARBON CAPTURE & STORAGE

Three methods are being explored. First is the chilled ammonia technology in place at New Haven that uses ammonia carbonate to pull CO2 out of exhaust gases. Second is burning coal in pure oxygen to produce a CO2 rich emissions stream, which Sask Power has considered. And the third siphons off the CO2 made during the gasification of coal. All are highly experimental and very costly. The Department of Energy (DOE) claims there is geologic room for 3.9 trillion tons of C02 in the U.S. underground, more than enough to handle the 3.2 billion tons emitted by industry yearly. Meanwhile an Ohio evaluation found rock formations stored less C02 than predicted. The chemistry and geology is apparently not as simple as the industrial experts claim.

Is it ever? Is this the same “trust us…take a leap of faith with industry” that we have heard about nuclear waste storage to no avail for over three generations? While one-half million tons of C02 may get injected into rocks 8,000 feet below the New Haven plant over the next five years, this only constitutes 2% of the plant’s CO2. The November 2009 Scientific American says the CCS technology at New Haven cost $73 million upfront and American Electric Power has asked for $334 million in federal stimulus, which is only one-half of the cost of removing 20% of the plants CO2. What about the other 80%?

The industry claims $1 billion will build state of the art plants, but we should be skeptical, for that is what the nuclear industry also said, until independent assessment showed it to be three-times the industry figure. The U.S.’s DOE has estimated that to get 90% CCS using amine scrubbers would double the cost of coal-fired electricity, from $63 to $114 per megawatt hour (mWh). Meanwhile Stanford researchers found that “clean coal” did the worst, followed by bio-fuels and nuclear, and wind did the best, when comparing the carbon footrpint of all alternative fuels, including electricity, used for transportation. “Clean coal” is a contradiction in terms. And even without doubling the costs of coal with CCS, wind is already competitive with new coal plants.

ECOLOGICAL IMPACTS REMAIN

What if the coal industry could reduce most CO2 by sequestering it safely underground? There’s three “what ifs” in this: if the technology works, if it is economic, and if it can be applied safely. And even if all were resolved, the direct ecological impacts of coal mining would continue. Strip mining would continue. Mountain tops of coal would continue to be removed and watersheds and biodiversity wrecked. The residual toxic fly ash would still come from the coal plants, and the risks of geyser-like releases of underground gases would remain.

In their rush for cake-and-eat-it tech-fixes, governments are proceeding without clarity about who owns the pore spaces in the rock or who assumes liability for accidents. Furthermore, no one is talking about the possibility of any full-scale CCS installations in coal plants before 2015, and possible before 2025, which is far too late to start to reduce absolute levels of GHGs to stop climate change from escalating beyond our control.

So is Saskatchewan pioneering sustainability by embracing CCS? Just because there’s lots of coal in southern Saskatchewan doesn’t mean we have to find some way to justify using it. Just because there is some oil left in the ground doesn’t mean we have to extract it. Value-adding at any cost is not good ecological economics. We have plenty of unused wind, sun and water in the province. And this does not require a toxic fuel. So why not use this?

SHORT-TERM MOTIVATION

In February’s Sasquatch Professor Wilson says CCS emissions “are pretty well non-toxic” and that a higher environmental return on investment comes from CCS than, say, moving to part-electric cars. This is very debatable. But as co-founder of the first CCS commercial project, started near Weyburn in 2007, the director of the International Test Centre at the University of Regina may have an axe to grind. The economic motivation for this project wasn’t primarily GHG reductions but the ability to increase production by two-thirds, or 18,000 barrels per day, in the oilfield that the CO2 is pumped into. With this oil-recovery success the Harper government of course allocated $650 million for CCS research. The agreement signed by Premier Wall and Montana’s Governor for a cross-border CCS project also has more to do with maintaining the lucrative fossil-fuel industry than with GHG reductions.

Saskatchewan presently gets half of its electricity from coal and has the highest per capita GHG emissions in Canada and the second-highest of any jurisdiction on the planet. Is it any accidenta that it is embracing CCS when it can be used to increase private oil production with public financing, to maintain coal plants and perhaps to use coal to produce lucrative bio-fuels? All, of course, with environmental promotions! Canada presently ranks first among the G8 countries for increased GHGs emissions. Is it any wonder that the Harper government treats CCS as a way to manage the politics of the climate crisis? If we want to get beyond environmental optics we will have to do better.