Carbon capture no 'silver bullet' for climate change

Carbon capture, or CCS for short, takes greenhouse gas emissions at their source — such as the emissions from a coal-fired power plant — strips out the carbon dioxide, liquefies it and then shoves it deep into the earth forever.

Supporters say the technology is a practical way to fight global warming

Production foreman Ron Toly visually inspects the carbon capturing research facility near Redwater, Alta., on June 26. Here, in this open field under a blue sky, is the business end of what the energy industry hopes will be a crucial part of its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (John Ulan/Canadian Press)

The theory is simple, the debate divisive: To survive global warming, simply insert billions of dollars, suck, and blow.

It's called carbon capture and storage, and Canada is ponying up to support what is effectively big-ticket enviro liposuction for a generation of consumers who can't — or won't — stop gobbling up fossil fuels.   

Is carbon capture technology the most practical way to combat global warming? (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

"This isn't the silver bullet," says Chuck Szmurlo, a vice-president with Calgary-based energy distributor Enbridge, which is spearheading a group exploring carbon capture solutions in Alberta.

"But carbon capture ... we think, has a very important role to play in enabling us to continue accessing our energy resources in a way that is consistent with our environmental targets."

Carbon capture, or CCS for short, takes greenhouse gas emissions at their source — such as the emissions from a coal-fired power plant — strips out the carbon dioxide, liquefies it and then shoves it deep into the earth forever.

Proponents say it has to be done because even if developed nations immediately moved en masse to renewables such as solar, wind, and biomass, it wouldn't make a whit of difference because emerging leaders such as China and India continue to stoke their burgeoning economic engines with coal.

Everyone from developed to developing nations could benefit from the technology, supporters say. The International Energy Agency says CCS could reduce CO2 emissions from power plants by more than 85 per cent.

But opponents such as Greenpeace are gnashing their teeth.

Why, they beseech, of all the technologies in all the labs in all the world, do the best and brightest seize not on the new dawn of solar and wind, but on a technology that serves only to prop up Old King Coal's dirty old soul?

"We need to pick our future. Do we want a green energy future or do we want a black energy future?" asks Emily Rochon of Greenpeace in an interview from Brussels, Belgium, where she tirelessly prowls hallways and offices to lobby European Union officials to move away from coal.

"CCS doesn't get us there. It keeps fossil-intensive energy infrastructure in place and at the top of the energy agenda. We've never given renewable energy the chance it deserves, so it hasn't taken off."

Canada's goal

The Australian government has invested more than $4 billion to support clean energy technologies, almost half of that for CCS. There are also test projects throughout Europe and Asia — in Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, China, Japan and elsewhere.

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has earmarked $1 billion for clean energy technology, much of it for CCS. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020.

Seven projects have received early-stage funding, but not all have promised to go ahead.

(Canadian Press)

Canadian projects

Carbon is already being stored in Saskatchewan.

A coal gasification plant in Beulah, N.D., ships 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 a year via pipeline to enhance oil recovery in the oilfields near Weyburn, southeast of Regina. It's a $1-billion project run by Calgary-based energy company EnCana.

The province is now working with Montana for carbon to be captured in Saskatchewan and shipped to the U.S. state for storage.

In Alberta, the province has committed $2 billion for CCS test projects that are to be announced later this summer.

Chuck Szmurlo's group, the Alberta Saline Aquifer Project, has already identified numerous underground storage sites in the cavernous Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin.

"There's lots of space," says Szmurlo.

"Some of the scientists we've talked with have suggested there's enough pore space to take all of Canada's emissions — not just the reduction targets — for the next 800 years."

In British Columbia, Spectra Energy Transmission is exploring a plan to sequester carbon dioxide from a gas-processing plant at Fort Nelson.

The Harper government isn't pursuing a carbon tax, but instead plans to work for reductions through capping and trading emissions.

Bringing down the cost of the technology is critical.

While greenhouse gas numbers have spiked in the last generation, it has only been in the last decade that CCS has been pursued in earnest as a viable solution to the problem.

It may no longer be infant technology, but it's certainly still a toddler.

Different options are being examined at all stages: capturing carbon after combustion from flue gas, before combustion via gasification or stripping it after burning it in near-pure oxygen.

It could be shipped by pipeline, by train, by truck, by boat. It could be stored underground in a saline aquifer, a depleted oil and gas field, deep coal seams or used for enhanced oil recovery.

But the bottom line threatens to become a bottomless one. Projects and costs are expected to stretch into the millions and billions of dollars.

"I think ultimately, if people are serious about it, it's going to be very expensive," says Jim Childress of the Gasification Technologies Council, a U.S. group that represents 70 companies in the industry. "And our public officials are not telling anybody that."

There's more than just technology and cost to hammer out. There are also the regulatory and legal whereases and heretofores about long-term liabilities and international rules.

Public perceptions

Decision-makers also have to get the public to first understand, then buy into, an arcane science that has all the romance of an airport washroom.

Expound on syngas, flue gas and oxyfuel combustion at your next keg party and you'll likely get blank stares as your host gently takes your tumbler of diet soda and steers you toward the door.

If people do know about CCS, they likely don't want it in their backyard, especially in congested Europe, where pipelines would likely have to go near high-population areas.

Public perception problems won't end there, but will probably continue with long-term storage.

Those in favour can point to an article published this spring in the journal Nature. Scientists studied nine gas fields in Asia, Europe and North America and found that carbon dioxide stored there naturally stayed in place for millions of years.

"This is a major step forward, I think, in terms of trying to actually address one of the prime questions of carbon capture and storage, which is: 'What is going to be the fate of the CO2 if we reintroduce it to the subsurface?"' Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a University of Toronto geology professor who co-authored the study, said at the time.      

Rochon fires back with two words: Lake Nyos.

Disaster in Africa

In August 1986, seven months after the Challenger space shuttle exploded, residents in the tiny village of Nyos in sun-baked western Cameroon heard a rumbling and a boom from the nearby lake.

Lake Nyos is a geologic anomaly, a tiny lake formed when a volcano filled with water. The magma chamber feeding the volcano was [and is] active, releasing carbon dioxide into the bottom of the lake, where it slowly accumulated under pressure until the lake finally flipped upside down.

The CO2 burst to the surface in a blast that shot high in the air, killing cattle 90 metres up in the nearby hills. Dissolved iron displaced from the bottom reacted to the air at the surface, turning the lake a rusty, bloody red.

The invisible gas, heavier than air, roared through the valley, displacing oxygen and suffocating every living creature — 1,800 people, 3,000 cattle and countless birds and insects — in a death zone that spread 19 kilometres.

Residents who heard the boom and went to their doorways died where they stood. Others who were standing survived, while family members lying down beside them, closer to the floor, never woke up.

Scientists have since stuck a tube down to the bottom of the lake to relieve the buildup of carbon dioxide and hopefully prevent future catastrophes.     

"You can never factor out human error, pipelines and earthquakes," says Rochon. "So why would we take that risk when we don't have to?"

An imperfect solution

Because, like it or not, says Childress, CCS is an imperfect solution for an imperfect world.

"You can't objectively say that solar, wind and biomass are going to make a large enough contribution to make up for what Greenpeace wants, which is no more coal plants," he says. "That just doesn't pass the giggle test."

On that issue there's agreement. Each side believes the other is content to fiddle while the carbon burns.

How the science works

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