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The Challenge and Promise of Carbon Capture and Storage

This article originally appeared in The Solutions Journal.

I don't use the term "clean coal." There will always be environmental issues surrounding the production and use of coal. But for the foreseeable future, global energy demands are going to require us to keep on burning it. That has brought everyone's attention to bear on Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, the process that most commonly uses chemical solvents to "scrub" CO2 from the overall emission stream, transport it, and then inject and store it in rock strata.

There's currently a lot of misinformation about CCS on both sides of the divide. Some in the coal industry claim the process as an environmental panacea. They've called America "the Saudi Arabia of CCS," given its abundant rock formations, which are perfect for storage.

Many activists fear the process is just a way for the industry to do some greenwashing that will allow coal to go on polluting and the world to keep consuming vastly more energy than is sustainable. The truth is somewhat more prosaic, but it points to the crucial role that CCS must play to stop global warming.

Let's get some facts straight. CCS is on the cusp of operational, first-of-a kind deployment, but for the time being it remains a demonstration tool. There are several projects operating at an industrial scale worldwide, in line with a G8 call to realize 20 demonstrations by 2020. Most of these demonstrations are operating at about a million tons per year, but there are no projects operating at several millions of tons of CO2 per year.

In the United States, American Electric Power's Mountaineer power plant in New Haven, West Virginia, is currently doing integrated carbon dioxide capture and geologic storage, using a small stream of the overall emissions from that facility. On top of existing federal funding, the Obama administration has given $3.4 billion from the Recovery Act toward further research and demonstration.

The challenge facing this American Electric Power demonstration, and others globally, is that CCS is very site-specific. You have to have the right geology to promote safe and secure storage. That means there's no single solution. This presents a real challenge for the energy industry. Ultimately, dealing with climate change requires global cooperation, and if a framework for sharing knowledge and building a network of integrated demonstrations can be put in place, technology might move forward towards deployment more quickly.

There are signs that this is happening. At the World Resources Institute (WRI), we're focused right now on developing a set of guidelines for how to responsibly demonstrate and deploy CCS in China. We have already developed a set of guidelines with stakeholders from the United States who represent various viewpoints on CCS, including environmental groups, the coal industry, the oil and gas industry, and leading academics. To develop guidelines for China, we are working with Tsinghua University and leading experts on CCS from both China and the U.S. We are exploring the potential for global response to the challenges posed by developing this technology.

In parallel with the rollout of more demonstrations, WRI is urging both the U.S. and China to give proper thought to post-closure stewardship. This is where we really need to learn from the mistakes of the past, in the coal industry as well as others, and ensure that someone is responsible for stewardship of these sites over the long term.

There are a number of proposed mechanisms for apportioning responsibility and funding: One bill before Congress envisions a federal tax on operators, based on a cost for each ton of carbon dioxide stored, to create a trust fund that would cover post-closure stewardship costs. Another additional strategy is for CCS operations to post an assurance bond to cover costs. This could be similar to how mining operations currently have to post bonds for land reclamation (not large enough bonds). The idea here would be to shift the burden of CCS risk onto CCS project operations instead of making the public pay for it.

If we can get this right, and continue to move in the direction of greater global cooperation, there's no reason why we can't move toward a rapid deployment of the technology. When the G8 announced its goal of 20 demonstrations by 2020, it asked the International Energy Agency (IAEA) to come up with a road map for how to achieve that goal. This roadmap projects 100 projects worldwide by 2020, including many in China. This work is based on the assumption that the world must reduce its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2050. The IAEA's research suggests that CCS could account for 19 percent of that drop.

CCS is important because it's a bridge that's needed to help us get from our current power plants, which are spewing lots and lots of CO2, to that zero-carbon future we envision. We need to test and try CCS at commercial scales to see if it's going to work, but we also need to bear in mind that it doesn't address all the problems of our current energy production and use.

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