The Carbon Capture Juggernaut Rolls On

If the coal industry's carbon capture and storage (CCS) plan were ever implemented, it would be the largest hazardous waste disposal project that humans have ever undertaken, and among the most dangerous as well. A new report explains why the plan cannot work.

By Peter Montague of Rachel’s Democracy & Health News

1.9mb PDF
The coal, oil, automobile, railroad and electric power industries are planning to "solve" the global warming problem by capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) and burying it a mile underground, hoping it will stay there forever. The plan is called CCS, short for "carbon capture and storage" (or sometimes "carbon capture and sequestration").

Emitting CO2 into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) is thought to be the main human contribution to global warming.

If industry's CCS plan were ever implemented, it would be the largest hazardous waste disposal project that humans have ever undertaken, and among the most dangerous as well. As the New York Times reported April 23, 2008, "A large leak of underground carbon dioxide could be as dangerous as a leak of nuclear fuel, critics say."

Now a new report (PDF) by Emily Rochon and others, published by Greenpeace International, describes industry's CCS plan in detail and shows, point by point, why it cannot prevent climate chaos.

Anyone who wants a basic introduction to CCS will want to get a copy of Rochon's report. It is a thoroughly documented, carefully argued, presentation of industry's plan, with professional graphics that clarify how CCS is supposed to work.

Rochon's report is even-handed, often leaning over backwards to present the industry plan in the best possible light. Still, the report concludes that CCS is a "dangerous gamble" that ultimately cannot prevent climate chaos because -- even if it works -- it will arrive too late to do any good.

In 40 pages, Rochon's report reinforces five main points:

  1. CCS wastes energy. Capturing carbon dioxide will consume 10% to 40% of the energy produced by a power plant. This means that, on average, CCS would require construction of a fifth power plant for every 4 new power plants that use CCS. Thus CCS requires, on average, 25% more coal mining, transportation, and waste disposal than non-CCS power plants. CCS would also increase the water requirements of power plants by 90%.
  2. CCS is expensive. CCS will double the cost of a power plant and will increase the cost of electricity somewhere between 21% and 91%, according to U.S. government figures. Worse, CCS will divert funds away from renewable sources of energy and energy conservation projects, which could reduce CO2 emissions faster and at lower cost than CCS.
  3. Storing carbon dioxide underground is risky. No one can guarantee that CO2 buried in the ground will stay put forever. Even very low leakage rates could reverse the climate benefits achieved initially by CO2 burial.
  4. CCS carries significant liability risks. A large leak of CO2 could kill vegetation, animals, and humans over a fairly large area. Industry is already angling to get taxpayers to shoulder the liability. With some 6000 CCS burial projects required to make a significant dent in the CO2 problem, opportunities for serious mishaps will be ever-present.
  5. CCS cannot deliver in time to avert climate chaos. The world's scientific community is saying CO2 emissions must peak by 2015 and decline thereafter -- but even the most optimistic industry plans call for CCS to begin in 2020 -- and most industry spokespeople are saying CCS won't be available until 2030 to 2050.
Despite these fatal flaws in industry's CCS plan, the U.S. and Europe (and probably China) are counting on CCS to solve the global warming problem. As Fred pearce wrote in New Scientist March 29, "In Germany, only CCS can make sense of an energy policy that combines a large number of new coal-fired power stations with plans for a 40 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2020." And the New York Times reported April 23, "Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent." The Times reports that "the technology that the industry is counting on to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that add to global warming -- carbon capture and storage -- is not now commercially available. No one knows if it is feasible on a large, cost-effective scale."
CCS is the greenwashing of Big Coal
In the U.S., the three remaining major presidential candidates -- Clinton, Obama and McCain -- are all enthusiastic supporters of coal with CCS tacked on. No matter who wins the presidency, the coal industry will be sitting in the Oval Office promoting CCS.

In sum, the coal industry is putting all our eggs -- yours and mine -- in a basket that has never been tried before on a commercial scale. It is -- as Emily Rochon says with characteristic understatement -- a "dangerous gamble."

Rochon's report ends by reminding readers that we already know how to solve climate chaos. Energy conservation and renewable sources of energy are already available, are cost-effective, and can do the job far faster than coal with CCS. CCS is not only dangerous, expensive, and too late to do any good. It is also unnecessary. Given all that, why would we choose to take this dangerous gamble?

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  • Posted on May 17, 2008. Listed in:

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