Burying CO2 – solution or pipe dream?

October 26, 2008 at 6:12 pm | Posted in Climate solutions | Leave a comment
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We like to bury things we don’t know what to do with below the ground: garbage, toxic waste, nuclear waste, chemical waste and now carbon dioxide. 

Carbon capture and storage – often referred to as CCS – has been hailed in some quarters as the solution to climate change.  And why not?  The largest source of carbon dioxide emissions are fossil fuels, which are literally the remains of carbon-based life forms from ages and ages ago that are found underground.

So, if we can find a way to capture carbon dioxide emissions once they’ve been released, why not return the carbon from whence it came?

It’s a question that will be the focus of an upcoming conference in Washington, D.C., when scientists meet to discuss the latest research into CCS technologies.  The conference, taking place November 16 to 20, is a biennial event that was started in 1997.  It’s being organized by MIT and the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), with support from the U.S. Dept. of Energy. 

The viability of CCS technologies – both whether they can work and whether they can be deployed in time – is controversial.

Recently the IEA called on the Group of Eight industrialized nations to spend $20 billion over the next decade on CCS demonstration projects.  Although the G-8 countries agreed to build 20 large-scale demo projects by 2010 at a July meeting, the IEA has said that current investment levels fall far short of what’s needed to get there.

In fact, a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that slow-paced progress by the Energy Department and other agencies has “left critical gaps that impede our understanding” of the potential use of carbon capture and storage technologies.  Along with technological challenges, the report also concluded there are regulatory and legal hurdles that must be overcome. 

Some work, though, is underway.  Shell has just announced that it will begin a field test of carbon capture sequestration in Alberta, Canada, with support from the government’s Energy Research Institute. 

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the recent credit bailout included some $2.5 billion in tax incentives for the development of CCS.  And both presidential candidates have said they support field-testing the technology, which is key to the development of so-called clean coal.

The Dept. of Energy, however, backed out of its first major CCS project – FutureGen – in January, citing rising costs. The project was planned for Mattoon, Illinois.

So, it seems for the time being at least, that CCS is locked in a one-step forward, one-step back kind of hitch.  And even if it holds the promise its backers herald, it may be some time before we can solve our climate conundrum by burying our carbon waste underground.  


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