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NYTimes: A Bad Bet On Carbon? Another View on CCS

Carbon capture and storage is a challenge, but the obstacles are hardly insurmountable.

In his May 13th New York Times Op-Ed—released on the heels of the draft Kerry-Lieberman climate bill— Robert Bryce argues that the bill’s provisions for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) outpace the technology’s potential as a climate change solution, and he outlines three “insurmountable hurdles” CCS faces. But are these hurdles really insurmountable? From my research on the subject, I take a more positive view, that American ingenuity and our ability to accelerate the cycle of innovation will make CCS a viable tool in the fight against climate change.

Countries are investing in carbon capture and storage

The author is correct that adding CCS to a power plant will come with a "parasitic" power load, meaning it will take more fossil fuels to produce less energy. He argues, though, that no coal-dependent country will reduce its capacity and accept this penalty. In fact, the world’s most-coal dependent economies are investing in demonstrating CCS technology at commercial scale as part of national research and demonstration programs and stimulus packages. The UK just made a significant commitment to CCS when it passed a levy for electricity production that will go to fund four commercial-scale CCS demonstrations. China is also investing in its GreenGen project and has significant near-term opportunities for other CCS demonstrations.

The question of pipeline capacity

The author’s criticism of pipelines is that we don’t currently have the necessary capacity to transport CO2 and that future investment in CO2 pipelines would be shouldered by taxpayers. The truth is that it’s too early to know what a future CO2 pipeline network may bring. The nature and extent of future pipeline networks will depend on many factors, such as:

  • Distance between the sources of CO2 that will be captured and the geologic storage site,
  • Ability to obtain pipeline rights-of-way and construction permits,
  • Cost of construction and operation of the pipelines

In a public presentation to President Obama’s Interagency CCS Task Force in Washington, DC last week, I highlighted research that models the future pipeline network development and recommended that the task force consider diversity in regional pipeline networks to meet the specific needs of local stakeholders.

CCS is not the only solution

The author makes a calculation of the volume of CO2 to be stored, assuming that CCS is applied to 50 percent of the total U.S. emissions. By comparison, the House of Representatives-passed Waxman-Markey bill would result in an overall reduction of U.S. emissions by only 15% in 2020, scaling up to greater reductions by 2050. More importantly, CCS clearly isn’t the only approach the U.S. will take to addressing climate change—the scale of the problem requires a portfolio of solutions including more renewable energy and increased energy efficiency.

Protecting people and the environment

Bryce writes that because of safety concerns, "few people will want to live near a pipeline or an underground storage cavern." This statement implies that leaks from CO2 pipelines and storage sites are likely. However, choosing sites with the appropriate geology for CCS will drastically reduce the risks associated with geologic storage, and these risks can be further minimized through responsible operation, management, and robust closure and monitoring procedures. WRI led a group of over 100 stakeholders from the environmental community, national labs, industry and academia to develop a set of preliminary guidelines for how to responsibly demonstrate and deploy CCS technologies in the United States to ensure that CCS projects are conducted safely and effectively.

Communities should be engaged in the planning of CCS projects and ask questions about the potential impact on people and the environment.

Back to the bet

The hurdles mentioned by the author are largely related to assumptions about the future deployment of CCS. First, we need to invest in first-of-a-kind commercial projects by providing incentives, such as those described in the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill.

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