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.


They said it at Brainstorm Green

Here are some highlights of FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, which wrapped up yesterday. I’m co-chair of the event, which brought about 300 corporate leaders, environmentalists, investors and academics to Laguna Niguel, CA, for three whirlwind days of talk about how business can help solve the world’s big environmental problems:

Alan Mulally at FORTUNE Brainstorm Green

The trouble with electric cars:  Batteries remain heavy and very expensive, adding about $12,000 to $15,000 to the cost of a Ford Focus that would otherwise be priced at about $22,000, said Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally. During a q-and-a with the audience, he said:

…a battery for a hybrid vehicle is around a 2 kilowatt hour battery, weighs around 100 pounds, maybe around $2,000.  And as you move to a plug-in hybrid size, say around 8 to 10 kilowatt hours, then that weight moves up to around 300 pounds and the cost is around $7,000 to $8,000.  And then when you move into an all-electric vehicle the battery size moves up to around 23 kilowatt hours, it weighs around 600 to 700 pounds — some people actually are taking our seats to be able to carry the battery around, not us — and also they’re around $12,000 to $15,000….So, you can see why the economics are what they are.

Of course, drivers who pay $39,200 for a Focus EV will save a lot of money on fuel during the life of the car, depending on gas prices and how much they drive. That’s a reminder of another dilemma facing potential electric-car buyers.  Ford says its Focus can go up to 76 miles on a full charge, so it’s ideal for people (like me) who don’t drive much. But the less you drive, the longer it takes to recover the higher up-front costs of the car in the form of lower operating costs.

Even so, sales of hybrids and electrics were the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. auto market in the first quarter. They accounted for less than 5% of vehicles sold but Mulally said their share will grow as battery prices come down.

“We see this as continually growing,” he said. “This is a long-term journey.” [click to continue…]

Sierra Club’s Brune: We’re stopping coal

Michael Brune

“We are starting to create the ecological U-turn that David Brower talked about, decades ago. On coal, it’s dramatic. We’ve seen a halt to the coal rush.”

“Primarily because of regulations (from)  the Obama administration, we can now project a future where our oil consumption will decline.”

“It’s not sufficient to address the problem, but it’s a positive trend.”

So says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. [David Brower, who was made famous in John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, was one of his predecessors.] Others fret that the environmental movement is on the defensive these days. Mike, an optimistic, sees progress.

Indeed, Mike argues that the effort by Republicans in the House to roll back a slew of environmental regulations as a sign that the enviros are winning.

“Republicans in Congress and their corporate benefactors are worried about the threat to the status quo in the energy industry,” he says. “That’s the reason this is happening. We’re making progress.” [click to continue…]

Natural gas: friend or foe of sustainability?

Most environmentalists would cheer the discovery of cheaper ways to generate electricity from wind or solar power. They would lament the news that prices are dropping for dirty fuels like coal or oil. But what about natural gas? Are abundant supplies and low prices for natural gas good for the environment–or not? Is natural gas a “bridge” to a clean energy future? Or is it a detour?

That’s the topic of a free webinar that I will moderate on Tuesday, November 30, with natural-gas experts Geoff Styles and David Hone at The Energy Collective. To register, click here.

These aren’t hypothetical questions, of course. Natural gas supplies are growing and prices are down. As The Walt Street Journal reported last year:

A massive natural-gas discovery… in northern Louisiana heralds a big shift in the nation’s energy landscape. After an era of declining production, the U.S. is now swimming in natural gas.

…Huge new fields also have been found in Texas, Arkansas and Pennsylvania. One industry-backed study estimates the U.S. has more than 2,200 trillion cubic feet of gas waiting to be pumped, enough to satisfy nearly 100 years of current U.S. natural-gas demand.

Some people will tell you this flood of natural gas will displace coal, and thereby reduce carbon emissions. This was the theme of a recent [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)

Brainstorm Green: The Home Edition

FORTUNE’s third annual Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment starts today (Monday), and one new twist this year is that you can play along at home.

BstormGreenHorizonta2B4F8FFor the next three days, many of the plenary sessions at the event, which is being held at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point, Ca., will be shown on the web. People who sign up to attend online will be able to ask questions, I’m told. This is an experiment, an effort to see how a virtual conference will work and, of course, to expand FORTUNE’s business. (Hint: You can tune in for free this year, but that may not be the case in the future.)

As the co-chair and creator of Brainstorm Green, I’m obviously biased but I think we’ve got a great lineup again this year. I’m going to take a break from blogging for a few days to focus on the conference. Here are some  highlights:

Today (Monday) at 3:05 p.m. (all times are listed as Pacific Time, so this is  6:05 in the East), Lee Scott, the former CEO of Wal-Mart who is now chair of the executive committee of the Wal-Mart board, will talk about Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts with John Huey, the editor in chief of Time Inc. John is a great interviewer who once wrote a book about Sam Walton, so this session should be a treat.

Following that session, at about 3:50 p.m.,  I’ll be asking some of America’s most important environmental leaders: What Do Environmentalists Want? Joining me will be Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, David Yarnold of the Environmental Defense Fund and Mike Brune, the new head of the Sierra Club. We’ll talk about the outlook for climate legislation in Washington, as well as such hot topics as nuclear power and geoengineering.

Later Monday, I’ll talk to Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI, about “sustainability as a team sport.” [click to continue…]

Smart books for troubled times

What book best explains the today’s world of business — the credit crunch, housing bust, diving dollar, etc.? That’s the question that reporter Frank Ahrens of The Washington Post put to some biz luminaries, resulting in a lively story in today’s paper.

Interestingly, my friend Nell Minow (of The Corporate Library and movie mom fame) and my former college classmate Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. recommended the same book, David Copperfield, and cited the same quote, the advice given by Mr. Micawber to David:

‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.’ Following that advice will protect you from the worst of economic upheavals.

Ah, yes. In a similar vein, Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the FDIC, recommended a novel, So Big, by Edna Ferber, about a frugal mother and spendthrift son, and wrote:

The shift in values from mother to son can also be viewed as allegory for our own nation’s continuing cultural shift. We have moved away from the values of thrift and financial security held by our Depression-era parents to that of overuse of credit to fund lifestyles we cannot afford, that have not always brought happiness, and — in the case of the foreclosure crisis — that have caused dislocation and despair.

True enough. Frank’s story got me thinking about what book I’d recommend if I were asked to select a single volume that explains the beat I cover–the world of green business, corporate responsibility and capitalism, for better or worse. Many come to mind but my pick for the most recent book that best captures what’s going on in business (and elsewhere) today is the latest from one of my favorite business writers, Paul Hawken. It’s called Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (Viking 2007).

In Blessed Unrest, Hawken, whose previous books, Natural Capitalism and The Ecology of Commerce, have shaped much of my thinking about business and the environment, takes on a much bigger topic–the vast array of very loosely networked environmental and social justice organizations, operating in every corner of the globe. They have no orthodoxy or charismatic leader, they often operate independently, many are tiny and local, some well-funded and global–and together they are changing the world of business, and therefore the world. Blessed Unrest is a very optimistic book that connects the dots among such disparate people and organizations as Emerson, Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King; LEED, Wikipedia and the Grameen Bank; Partners in Health, Amazon Watch and Cree Indians who are fighting development of the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. Hawken writes:

This movement’s key contribution is the rejection of one big idea in order to offer in its place thousands of practical and useful ones. Instead of isms it offers processes, concern and compassion. The movement demonstrates a pliable, resonant and generous side of humanity. It does not aim for the utopian, which itself is just another ism, but is eminently pragmatic.

And it is impossible to pin down….the movement defies conventional typologies…Should the idea of using renewable sources to achieve  localized energy independence be categorized as radical, conservative, ecological, good long-term economics or socially equitable?

Hawken’s book, like the movement he’s writing about, is hard to summarize or even categorize. (Although it should be noted that he and his colleagues at the Natural Capital Institute have tried to keep track of what’s going on: See WISER, the World Index of Social and Environmental Responsibility at It currently lists 109,212 organizations. Amazing.)

In the book, he says:

The massive growth of citizen-based organizations responds to threats that are new, immense and game-changing. These groups defend against corrupt politics and climate change, corporate predation and the death of oceans, governmental indifference and pandemic poverty, industrial forestry and farming and depletion of soil and water….

And they are getting results:

Despite centuries-long practices of despoilation and pollution, almost every responsible corporation in the world is moving away from destructive practices and trying to institute more sustainable ones, and all of them have turned to NGOs to assist, teach, inspire and urge them on.

That, in the journalism biz, is what we call “the nut graf”–the single idea that summarizes the book. To understand how and why citizen groups around the world are changing business, well, you’ll have to read the rest of the book yourself.

Which reminds me–there are a number of promising biz and enviro books coming out this fall that I want to mention. (Disclosure: all three are by authors who are often sources of mine, and who I enjoy a great deal.) Sitting by my bedside are Strategies for the Green Economy by Joel Makower of, aka the guru of green business, Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal by the activist Mike Brune of the Rainforest Action Network and Greener Than Thou: Are you Really an Environmentalist? by Terry Huggins, the free-market environmentalist (and no, that’s not an oxymoron) who’s a fellow at the Hoover Insitution at Stanford, and his colleague Laura Huggins.