Technology

Washington’s mission

 By Chris Dalby

Despite ongoing fights such as the Dakota Access Pipeline or Keystone XL, the environmental track record of the U.S. has been trending positive of late. Public and private investments alike have branched out into fresh technological directions, seeking to make gains in new areas. This has ranged from banning offshore drilling in much of the U.S.-owned Arctic to cutting down on rare metals to a revolution in energy storage. However, one advance that has been steadily gaining traction is that of removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere by storing them underground…

The U.S. Department of Energy announced in November that it was pouring $44 million towards carbon capture and storage (CCS), part of a multi-faceted approach by the government to mitigate CO2 emissions. Despite a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, their use and impact will last decades and storing carbon emissions in the bowels of the earth has long been speculated about. The idea was steadily dismissed by several studies, who saw it as simply pushing back the cost for later generations. Greenpeace has arguably been one of the idea’s biggest detractors, claiming it doesn’t work and a distraction to real progress on climate change.

This advice seems to have been dismissed as progress has picked up toward large-scale carbon storage efforts. On Jan. 10, 2017 in Texas, the Petra Nova project opened as a direct link to the WA Parish generating station, aiming to remove the carbon emissions from this 240 MW coal-fueled plant from ever hitting the atmosphere. However, Petra Nova is the prime example of the controversy surrounding CCS. On the one hand, if it works, Petra Nova will allow for fossil fuel enthusiasts to argue that CCS will allow coal power stations and oil drilling to continue at a lower environmental impact.

Pipes for Keystone pipeline

On the other side, CCS has prominent backers, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency. It has also become a prominent pillar of any potentially polluting energy project that wants to get approval. Julio Friedmann, an expert at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said that “If you don’t have CCS, the chance of success goes down, and the cost of success goes up. If you do have CCS, the chance of success goes up and the cost of success goes down.” This opinion may not be shared by much of the world so far as over half of all currently active CCS projects are located in the United States. However, having the American government as its main backer is no mean feat. In recent years, the American government has been making a steady drive to make carbon storage feasible. To do so, Washington has had to overcome some stiff headwinds.

One large-scale failure was noted since then as a $1 billion investment in FutureGen, a project to retrofit a coal plant to pump carbon dioxide into an aquifer, was scrapped in February 2016. FutureGen fell apart because of a lack of results but these were not linked to the technology behind CCS failing. Instead, a lack of public and private sector alignments and the absence of a market strategy for carbon storage took FutureGen down. This has been the real challenge. Until recently, a lack of a unified climate change policy around the world made CCS unfeasible on a large-scale due to a lack of direction to unify both sides. Yet much of the groundwork has been laid down. In 2013, the US Geological Service identified 36 areas across the US with the underground conditions to store between 2,400 to 3,700 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide underground, known as geologic carbon sequestration.

The findings carefully excluded environmentally sensitive or protected areas and refuted claims that this was merely delaying a problem, claiming that carbon storage of this type essentially mimicked millennial geological processes. This was seen as a major push for CCS, with 13 projects identified to carry out feasibility studies and three to begin work on storage complexes. In 2016, this has been buoyed by several major announcements that have finally brought public efforts in line with private interests. In February, the Supreme Court validated the Clean Power Plan for Existing Power Plants. This not only sets strengthened regulations for power plants but also provides a slew of options to renovate plants that have been shuttered or risk such a fate.

Artist concept of FutureGen Power Plant of the Future

For Howard Herzog, a senior researcher at MIT’s Energy Initiative, and a leading expert on carbon storage, “(CSS) is the only mitigation technology that can rescue potentially hundreds of trillions of dollars of stranded fossil assets.” Herzog even believes that CCS could help to guarantee a future for the coal industry, which has been taking hit after hit. Low natural gas prices have made it easy to ostracize coal. Nothing can compete with natural gas at this point,” he commented. “It is always cheaper to put the CO2 into the atmosphere,” he added. “However, the government is not going to let this continue. Coal plants with carbon capture and storage can be very competitive.” Such progress by the government has been carefully advancing CCS as a credible and scientifically viable alternative.

The excellent news for CCS advocates is that it also joins a $1 billion effort by the private sector in various countries, with talks of technology transfers and cooperation already being discussed between the two sides. In Canada, Shell’s Quest project finished 2016 having stored over 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide after only a year. Its funding came from private partners, including Chevron, as well as the Canadian government, showing an immediate return on investment. Closer to home, in Alabama, BASF and The Linde Group completed improvements to help trap more carbon from flue gas at the government’s National Carbon Capture Center (NCCC). In fact, 2016 saw evidence of private-public cooperation on CCS. And 2017 saw the opening of one of the more ambitious CSS projects to date.

The future might look bright for this technology. But ultimately, CCS is no silver bullet, allowing carbon-emitting plants to stash their pollutants without consequence. But neither should it be dismissed out of hand. Like natural gas, like large-scale hydro projects, like safer pipelines, it is proving its value as a transition tool.

SEE MORE: Removing Carbon from the Air by Amanda Saint 

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.