Recycling CO2, and the oil sands

650px-Coal_power_plant_Datteln_2_Crop1Capturing the CO2 emissions from coal or natural gas plants is a climate solution–but one that has sharply divided environmentalists.

Mike Brune and his colleagues at the Sierra Club want the US and the world to go entirely Beyond Coal, as do other activist groups like Greenpeace and Others, including David Hawkins of NRDC (see this press release) and the folks at the Clean Air Task Force, argue that it’s unrealistic to expect countries like China and India to leave their coal reserves in the ground. They say investing in carbon capture from power plants are essential.

By all accounts, carbon capture and storage (CCS)  is costly and complicated. One way to bring down those costs would be to recycle the CO2 captured from coal and natural gas plants, and turn into useful products–fuels, chemicals, animal feed, building materials, whatever. CO2 recycling is an exciting idea–as I explain in this story posted the other day at Guardian Sustainable Business.

I reported the story at Globe 2104, a conference on business and the environment held last week in Vancouver, one of North America’s greenest cities and, not incidentally, perhaps its most beautiful big city. I had the chance to moderate one panel at Globe, and speak on another, and in between I went to a panel on carbon recycling, where I learned that there’s growing support for the idea in Alberta, home to Canada’s fossil fuel industry, including the now notorious oil sands development.

Here’s how my story begins:

We recycle paper, plastic, aluminum and glass. So why not carbon?

Taking carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and making it into something useful could help solve the climate crisis, if it could be done on a large scale. But capturing carbon emissions from power plants and turning them into fuels, feed, chemicals or building materials has so far proven to be an expensive and difficult proposition.

Lately, though, a burst of financial and technical support for recycling carbon emissions has come from an unexpected source: the Canadian oil sands industry.

Reviled by environmentalists, pilloried by Canadian rock legend Neil Young and denounced by crusading climate scientist James Hansen, the oil sands industry seems an unlikely partner in the battle against carbon emissions. But its interest in finding a carbon-dioxide solution actually makes sense.

After all, the coal, oil and natural gas industries produce more CO2 than anybody else. And given current legal trends, it’s clear that they don’t expect to be able to dump it into the atmosphere, willy-nilly, for free and forever. Alberta, the western province that is home to the oil sands and is Canada’s closest thing to Texas, enacted a $15-per-ton carbon tax in 2007. Next door, British Columbia charges a $30-per-ton carbon tax.

The story goes on to talk about plans for a global prize competition around recycling CO2, backed by Prize Capital, a small California company that provides early-stage capital to startups and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a Colorado-based coal-burning power generator that has financed research into carbon recycling.

I’ve since heard about a couple more companies that are working on CO2 recycling, which I’ll report on in the coming weeks.

What’s more, if scientists can figure out to economically capture CO2 from power plants, the next step could be capturing CO2 directly out of the air. That, as regular readers of this blog know, was the subject of my 2012 Kindle Single e-book, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, available from Amazon at $1.99, and a bargain at the price, if I do say so myself.


Climate policy: big ideas are dead

Right, left or center, most agree that U.S. climate and energy policy today is, at best, an ineffective and inefficient patchwork.

Better get used to it, said a bipartisan panel of Washington insiders today (Nov. 16) at the Atlantic Green Intelligence Forum.

For now, and for the rest of the Obama administration, when it comes to energy and climate, the White House and Congress will use the tools at hand, and not invent new ones.

“We all agree–big bills are dead,” said Carol Browner, the former White House climate czar and a Democrat.

“I never want to hear the word comprehensive again because once you hear the word comprehensive, you know a bill is never going to pass,” said James Connaughton, the former Bush II White House environmental adviser.

What this means, unfortunately, is that the U.S. won’t get an energy and climate policy that is sufficient to deal with the threat of global warming until 2013 at the earliest, even as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise rapidly. Just a week ago, the International Energy Agency warned that it will be impossible to hold global warming levels to safe levels without dramatic shifts towards low-carbon energy sources in the next few years. [click to continue…]

The Gulf disaster, and the future of coal

If you like the BP oil spill…


you’re going to love carbon capture and storage.


Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is the technology that offers the best hope of generating electricity from coal in a way that doesn’t further heat up the planet. When people talk about “clean coal” – a phrase that deserves quotes because coal is never entirely clean — they’re often talking about CCS.

CCS technologies, which can be applied before or after the coal is burned, are designed to capture carbon dioxide, transport it to a secure location, typically deep under the ground, and then sequester it safely for a long, long time, with little or no risk that it will ever escape.

Get the connection? Just as the oil industry assures that they can safely drill for oil a mile under the ocean, the coal companies and utility industry are very confident that can bury CO2 deep under the ground, with little or no risk that it will ever escape.

Do you want to take them at their word?

I asked Mike Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club and a leading anti-coal activist, about BP and CCS. He replied by email:

The BP deep water oil disaster is an example of how seeking out new and riskier ways of feeding our addiction to fossil fuels leads to new and more catastrophic problems….If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that relying on unproven and complicated methods to sustain our dependence on oil and coal has disastrous consequences.

You may be surprised to learn that CCS isn’t favored just by the coal guys or the utilities. Some environmental groups like the technology, too. David Hawkins, the estimable head of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which strongly opposes conventional coal plants, says it’s essential that we figure out CCS. Here’s his very thoughtful argument on behalf of CCS, from NRDC’s Switchboard blog:

As a community, we have achieved great success in blocking new coal plants one by one but we need a comprehensive coal policy as well.  Showing CCS is an available tool helps us to convince policymakers that they should oppose construction of coal plants that do not capture their carbon.  Is such a policy as attractive to many in our community as a law that says no more coal plants, period? No.  But we need to ask ourselves — what are the realistic odds of getting Congress or any significant coal-using state to adopt a “no new coal, period” policy in the next handful of years?   I have fought the coal industry for 40 years and in my judgment the odds of a total ban on new coal plants are not large.

The Obama administration is also an enthusiastic supporter of CCS on a grand scale, in the form of a controversial, costly project known as Future Gen. Just a week ago, even as oil was spewing into the gulf, Obama’s DOE  announced that it would spend up to $612 million in recovery act money (to be matched by $368 million in private funding) to demonstrate large-scale CCS from industrial sources (not power plants, although the technology is similar).

One project will store CO2 in a “deep saline formation,” as part of a corn ethanol project. Two others will use the CO2 in “enhanced oil recovery” in the Gulf, believe it or not. Such well-connected companies as Archer Daniels Midland and GE are among the beneficiaries. From the DOE announcement:

·         Leucadia Energy, LLC (Lake Charles, LA)—Leucadia and Denbury Onshore LLC will capture and sequester 4.5 million tons of CO2 per year from a new methanol plant in Lake Charles, LA. The CO2 will be delivered via a 12-mile connector pipeline to an existing Denbury interstate CO2 pipeline and sequestered via use for enhanced oil recovery in the West Hastings oilfield, starting in April 2014. The project team includes Leucadia Energy, Denbury, General Electric, Haldor Topsoe, Black & Veatch, Turner Industries, and the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology.  (DOE share: $260 million)

·         Air Products & Chemicals, Inc. (Port Arthur, TX)—Air Products will partner with Denbury Onshore LLC to capture and sequester one million tons of CO2 per year from existing steam-methane reformers in Port Arthur, Texas, starting in November 2012. The CO2 will be delivered via a 12-mile connector pipeline to an existing Denbury interstate CO2 pipeline and sequestered via use for enhanced oil recovery in the West Hastings oilfield. The project team includes Air Products & Chemicals, Denbury Onshore LLC, the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, and Valero Energy Corporation.  (DOE share: $253 million)

·         Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (Decatur, Ill.)—The project will capture and sequester one million tons of CO2 per year from an existing ethanol plant in Illinois, starting in August 2012. The CO2 will be sequestered in the Mt. Simon Sandstone, a well-characterized saline reservoir located about one mile from the plant. The project team includes Archer Daniels Midland, Schlumberger Carbon Services, and the Illinois State Geological Survey. (DOE share: $99 million)

Unfortunately, these subsidies don’t appear to be linked to actual tons of carbon sequestered. They support demonstration projects. Still to be determined are such issues as who “owns” the store CO2, who will be responsible, financially, if it escapes, etc.  To be fair, CO2 has been stored underground for years as part of enhanced oil recovery, but we’ve also been doing deepwater drilling for a long time.

Interestingly, the connection between the BP disaster and CCS was suggested to me,  not by an environmentalist, but by a very sophisticated investor in clean technology. This investor—who asked not to be identified, because he works closely with big companies like GE and with the Obama team—has placed bets on solar power, energy storage and efficiency, so he’s no fan of coal, but he’s also driven by a personal passion around the climate crisis.

Since I can’t quote the investor, I’ll give the last work to the Sierra Club’s Mike Brune:

Relying on carbon capture and storage is like a heroin addict finding a new vein to shoot. It’s not a solution, it’s simply a new way to perpetuate the problem. The Sierra Club has no objection to using private, corporate resources to fund CCS research to see if CCS can ever be done safely, cheaply, and without requiring massive amounts of energy. In the meantime, we shouldn’t be seeking out more expensive and dangerous ways to feed our dependence on oil or coal. Instead, we should be putting our innovation and resources to work in the service of clean energy that will create jobs and keep our coasts, wild places, and communities healthy and intact.

Photo links/credits: duck (Audubon Society of Florida)  coal plant (wikimedia)

They said it at Brainstorm Green

So much conversation has packed into so little time at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment that it’s difficulty  to absorb it all. Some great panels today on “clean coal,” Green Super Powers (GE, Wal-Mart, IBM) and green jobs. There’s video from the event here. Meanwhile, here are few quotes that caught my attention:

Michael Kowalski, the CEO  of Tiffany & Co., on why he had never before come to a “green” conference: “Fear of being accused of greenwashing. There is still so much work to be done”

Van Jones, the White House’s green jobs czar, on his first six weeks on the job: “Everyone who hears that you work in the White House thinks you see Barack Obama every day. I’ve seen the guy twice and I almost fainted the first time.”

Also from Van Jones: “It’s a long winding road from the time that someone signs a bill into law to the time when someone signs a paycheck.”

Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials, a company that makes more sustainable building materials,  on the changes ahead: “This is a new industrial revolution. It doesn’t happen once in a lifetime. It happens once in 100 years.”

Again, Van Jones: “We have to rethink in a fundamental way, what is an economy for? How do we meet not only our own needs but the needs of our children and grandchildren going forward.”

Van Jones, again: “People need a paycheck. That’s for sure. But people also need a purpose. This is a movement about redefining what work is. Is our work going to be a curse on this planet or a blessing on all creation?”

Jones: “People talk about Barack Obama as the first black president – he’s the first green president also.”

Michael Morris, CEO of American Electric power, No. 1 emitter of CO2 in the U.S., on the transition to cleaner energy that is underway: “This is a very costly issue and America needs to know that. Let’s not pretend that this is free.”

Morris, when asked who opposes his company’s plan for a high voltage line to get renewable energy to major markets: “People who don’t want something in their backyard, which means most Americans.”

Michael Brune of Rainforest Action Network:  “The reality is that there is no such thing as clean coal. The physical requirements of doing that, the energy costs, the financial costs are so great. I’m not saying that it can’t be done. I’m saying that we shouldn’t even try. “

David Hawkins, climate analyst and activist,  Natural Resources Defense Council: “It’s not clean coal. It’s better coal.”

Hawkins, on why any climate legislations must appeal to coal-state Democrats: “Job one is dealing with the politics. Unfortunately, saying it will all be done with efficiency and renewables is not a compelling answer. We need a strategy that is going to get us legislation right away.”

Hawkins: “The coal industry has earned its bad reputation. The coal industry has been associated inextricably with environmental degradation. But we still need better coal.”

Fedele Bauccio, CEO of Bon Appetit food-service company: “Our chefs are implementing low-carbon diet without losing money or customers”

My friend Adam Lashinsky has a smart, quick look at the conference at the Fortune website, called Seven lessons about the green economy.

Finally, I want to enthusiastically recommend a FORTUNE article by Jeffrey O’Brien about IBM and its efforts to apply information technology to attack problems like gridlock, energy waste, and supply chain transparency. It’s a terrific read.