Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, May 07, 2007

Wanna Bet the Farm on Carbon Capture and Sequestration?

by Richard Bell

Post Carbon Institute (April 17 2007)


As words go, sequestration is one of your uglier words. It sounds like something bad, like defenestration. Or something left over from the Inquisition.

But if you want to go on living on the planet Earth, then you'd better learn how to love sequestration. Because if sequestration doesn't work, the planet is toast. Literally.

I went to a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today that was intended "to receive testimony on S 731, National Carbon Dioxide Storage Capacity Assessment Act of 2007 and S 962, Department of Energy Carbon Capture and Storage Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 2007".

The less opaque version of this Congress-speak would be: a hearing on carbon capture (capturing the carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, especially coal in electricity generating plants) and the subsequent sequestration (storage) of that captured carbon so that the carbon dioxide could not reach the atmosphere and worsen global warming.

According to its proponents, with sequestration, we can burn our carbon and cool the planet too, by just slipping that nasty old carbon dioxide underground somewhere it won't leak out for a not-well-defined period of time much, much longer than Europeans have lived in North America. Not quite a free lunch, but damn close (since we will have to pay something for the energy costs of the sequestration process itself).

While you're sitting at home, your elected representatives are getting ready to bet the farm, that is the future of the world, that humans are going to figure out how to make sequestration work fast enough, at large enough scale, to allow for a coal-burning orgy like nothing in human history. Because the US and China and India and others have got plenty of coal - or so they say - we're going to burn it, come hell or rising sea levels.

Think I'm being a little over the top here? At today's hearing, David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center, laid out this nasty little factoid:

"If you look at the total number of new coal plants that analysts think will be built around the world over the next 25 years, without carbon capture and sequestration, these new plants will emit thirty percent more carbon dioxide than ALL previous human uses of coal.

Hawkins characterized this jaw-dropper as a "phenomenal mortgage on the planet's future climate".

So doesn't sequestration sound great? And it might be, if it just existed. Which it doesn't.

We do have experience injecting carbon dioxide into the ground. Oil companies invented a process to produce more oil from fields by pumping carbon dioxide into the ground, a process that goes by the name of "enhanced oil recovery" or EOR. Two major problems though: first, the oil companies never intended for this carbon dioxide to stay underground for hundreds or thousands of years. And the quantities involved are tiny compared to the billions of tons that would be generated on a global scale.

It was slightly reassuring to hear that there were efforts underway, in the US and overseas, to run field tests to see what would happen when carbon dioxide is pumped underground into various geologic formations. Tom Shope, Department of Energy's Acting Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy, mentioned having set up a bunch of regional partnerships around the country with states to do 25 geologic field tests, with large volume testing scheduled to begin as early as this summer. And the two bills under discussion at the hearing are both aimed at learning more about carbon capture and sequestration.

As the hearing went on, the veneer of optimism about carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) began to wear a bit thin. Things got sticky when the Senators began to ask for specifics about how much time it was going to take before CCS was rolled out on a commercial scale (begging the question of whether CCS can be done at all.)

Things took a definite turn for the worse when the director of the US Geological Survey, Dr Mark Myers, laid out his timeline for commercialization: workable sequestration after 2012, the first commercial deployment by 2020, and widespread use of CCS in the "2045 time frame".

Much sucking of wind. You don't have to know much about the urgency of dealing with climate change to know that 2045 is far too late. As one Senator put it, looking around the hearing room, he didn't see any Senator in the room who was likely to be alive by 2045.

After a quick bit of scuttering around, several of the other witnesses agreed that 2045 was a bit far off, and that we could start building commercial plants much faster than that, that we wouldn't be waiting until 2045 and then turning on a switch.

Where there's smoke (or at least carbon dioxide), can the lawyers be far behind? We live in a litigious land, and nowhere are lawyers thicker on the ground than in the ever-expanding quarters of Washington's lobbying firms. Taking no chances, the committee called a lawyer to testify, Kipp Coddington, a partner at the large firm of Alston and Bird. Coddington is an expert on a field that you could not possibly have imagined until you read it here: the expansion of liability law to cover carbon sequestration.

Who, after all, is going to be liable for all of the potential effects of industrial scale CCS, with the pumping of billions of tons of carbon dioxide beneath our soils? What if the carbon dioxide starts leaking out? What if?

As is often the case, the states are already ahead of the Congress on this liability problem. The wise solons of the Texas House of Represntatives have already approved a bill under which the state would assume liability for sequestered carbon dioxide in Texas. This example of forward-thinking was trotted out early in the hearing: only later did we hear about the kicker, and it was a Texas-size hum-dinger: having assumed liability, if anything ever did go wrong, Hawkins said the state planned to assert the doctrine of sovereign immunity, and then walk away from any liability claims. (For those of you who missed this day in law school, here's a handy definition of sovereign immunity from the "Lectric Law Library's Lexicon":

SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY - A doctrine precluding the institution of a suit against the sovereign [government] without its consent. Though commonly believed to be rooted in English law, it is actually rooted in the inherent nature of power and the ability of those who hold power to shield themselves.

If this argument about the substance in question being too "hot" for the private sector to handle sounds familiar to you, can you say Price-Anderson Act? Under the terms of the Price-Anderson Act, the federal government limits the liability of nuclear utilities in the event of a bad accident. Without this piece of federal pork, it is unlikely that any privately owned utility in the United States would have even entertained the notion of building a nuclear plant, much less going out and building one.

Attorney Coddington was already there. The best way to prevent a liability crisis from slowing down or stopping work on CCS would be for the federal government to assume liability for all the injected carbon dioxide "at some fixed date", like the end of injecting a given site, or the capping of the injection well.

The Natural Resources Defense Council's Hawkins was not buying this pig in a poke. Having the federal government assume liability distorted the marketplace, unfairly advantaging coal. Hawkins argued that "When these sites close forty or fifty years in the future, the full cost should be born by the private sector decision makers who decided to use these techniques [CCS]". A heretical thought, that one, that private sector decision makers should be responsible for all their costs, not just the ones they chose to accept. If markets actually worked according to this rule that companies should pay all the costs associated with their products, human beings could have avoided a whole heap of troubles.

(c) 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Post Carbon Institute

Post Carbon Institute is a US 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Bill Totten


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