Over-inflated claims for carbon capture and sequestration have become the last refuge of the energy scoundrel
Geologic Carbon Storage Can NEVER Work, says new US study
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If world leaders – still reeling from the fiasco of the Copenhagen Summit in the global war against carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – were hoping to find technological ‘solace’ on their return, the news could not be worse. Central to hopes for the future management of carbon dioxide emissions are theories associated with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). That is, collecting and storing the carbon emitted from burning fossil fuels underground, mainly beneath the ocean floor. However, a new US study just published exposes the concept of subsea CO2 management as “overwhelming in both physical needs and costs” and the entire strategy for geological sequestration per se as “profoundly non-feasible”.
It is the capture of carbon from electric power stations that has long been a subject of “considerable interest” in the war against carbon emissions. While the new report acknowledges the cost of carbon capture “may prove feasible” (though at a higher cost than previously thought), it has been the “common assumption that the cost of carbon sequestration is much less than the cost of capture”. It is this last assumption that the study demolishes.
Published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering, the study posits a series of analogies, including how water is currently injected into underground oil basins to maintain pressure and enhance extraction and production. This apparently “reassuring analogy” done through what the authors’ term “steady state” processes – where e.g., oil is produced while another, e.g. water is injected into the reservoir, something in wide use called water-flooding – is highly misleading when applied to CO2 injection for sequestration, an ‘unsteady state’ process. With CO2, says the report, the injected amount can only increase the reservoir pressure in a closed system. It would thus be necessary to maintain CO2 inflow pressure for the entire life of a typical commercial power plant. At just 50MW production that will is all but impossible.
“Volume required for CO2 storage has been severely underestimated”
Assessing the math and science of previous studies, the report goes on to show how the “volume required for CO2 storage has been severely underestimated.” In short, the sheer size of the underground areas required for storage, if the very real dangers of “pressure build up” and “significant leakage” (as all current CCS experiments have experienced, including the North Sea ‘Sleipner’ project) are to be avoided, are enormous. The report maintains that an average 500MW power station produces around 3 million metric tons of CO2 per year. The study goes on to show that the “extent of the reservoir” space required for a successful process would be “the size of a small US state”. In essence, the prospects for geological sequestration anywhere in the world look to be impossible. “The findings of this work,” the summary concludes, “suggest that it is not a practical means to provide any substantive reduction in CO2 emissions, although it has been repeatedly presented as such by others.”
In October 2009, as part of President Obama’s stimulus package, the US invested $1.4 billion in 12 CCS demonstration projects. In December 2009, the US announced a further $979 million is to be invested in 3 further such projects. The same month the EU pledged over $1.4 billion towards building 12 CCS similar projects by 2015. The UK is also proposing to fund and bring online 4 CCS demonstration projects by 2020. While the International Energy Agency maintains the world needs 100s more CCS units and thousands more by 2050, significantly the UN has not added CCS projects to its preferred Clean Development Mechanism list. The UN cites its reason as the need to investigate the danger of seepage from storage sites, and liability if seepage occurs, a key factor calculated in the new study.
A major element in the granting of future and refurbishing licenses for electricity generating power plants will be the need for site constructors to include a CCS component on site each costing $1 billion. It is a cost that will have to be funded by taxpayers, the only prospective risk-bearer for this immensely complicated and unproven technology. The risky nature of CCS may also be the reason that major construction firms like Germany’s RWE in regard to two of the UK’s four CCS projects have dropped out of the bidding process entirely.
Over-inflated claims for CCS have become the last refuge of the energy scoundrel
Michael Economides, co-author of the report, states, “For many of us who realize only too plainly the very real dangers and difficulties associated with sequestration, over-inflated claims for CCS have become the last refuge of the energy scoundrel”. Economides adds, “For them we can literally bury the problem and, for some of my colleagues we can even do some good via CO2-enhanced oil recovery. It is our view that neither will ever happen.”
If the governments investing in unproven CCS technology were looking for a new insignia of ‘blessing’ that reflected their faith in the CCS process, the study authors might be inclined to suggest St Jude – the patron saint of lost causes. After the fiasco in Copenhagen, the war on carbon increasingly resembles one.
“Sequestering carbon dioxide in a closed underground volume”, is authored by professors Christine Ehlig-Economides, Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A& M University, and Michael J. Economides, Department of Chemical Engineering at Houston University. The full report can be downloaded here.
Peter C Glover is a British political and energy analyst. He is currently co-writing Energy and Climate Wars: How naive politicians, green ideologues and media elites are undermining the truth about energy and climate to be published by Continuum in 2010.