The Gulf disaster, and the future of coal

If you like the BP oil spill…

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you’re going to love carbon capture and storage.

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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)

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