How’s that big carbon-capture push going? Slowly. Too slowly.

October 11, 2012

If you ask the experts at the International Energy Agency how the world can avert drastic global warming, they'll say it will take lots of different solutions. We'll need more renewable energy. More efficient cars. More forests. But we'll also need to figure out how to capture some of our existing carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants and industrial facilities and bury them deep underground.


Chilled-ammonia carbon capture equipment developed by Alstom is under construction at American Electric Power's power plant in New Haven, W.Va. (American Electric Power)

So how's that going? A big new report from the Global CCS Institute takes stock of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects around the world as of 2012. And progress has been... rather slow. While a handful of carbon-capture projects are coming online, there's still nowhere near enough to make a major contribution toward tackling climate change. What's more, no one has yet figured out how to effectively capture and bury emissions from coal-fired power plants — a tantalizing idea that could have a huge impact around the world. If it could ever work.

Worldwide, there are just eight CCS projects in operation. Most of those involve taking carbon-dioxide from gas processing and fertilizer plants and pumping it down into older oil wells to flush out hard-to-reach crude oil, a technique known as "enhanced oil recovery." The United States has four such carbon-capture projects now operating, including the Val Verdes Gas Plants in western Texas.

Altogether, these eight projects are storing 23 million tons of carbon-dioxide underground each year. The number is expected to rise to 16 projects capturing 36 million tons of carbon-dioxide per year by 2015. That's not too shabby—it's like taking six million cars off the road (though that's partially offset by the additional oil production). But this is also considered woefully insufficient. According to the International Energy Agency, the world needs something like 130 CCS projects by 2020 to meet its climate targets. We're nowhere close.

Moreover, no country has yet figured out how to capture and bury carbon-dioxide from coal-fired power plants effectively. Given that China and India are burning coal at a furious pace, there's a lot of hope for this technology. But efforts to develop "clean coal" (the polite euphemism) in the United States are foundering, even after Congress shelled out $6.9 billion for deployment. There are a few demonstration projects in the works, but the technology is still too pricey — CCS coal plants cost about 75 percent more than regular coal plants.

Yet there's a fair bit of interest in China, which is still erecting a new coal plant every week or so. As the Global CCS Institute report details, about half of all newly identified carbon-capture projects are now located in China. And the country is planning several coal and gas power plants that can bury their carbon deep underground (those are the blue squares and circles on the map):

For now, China is looking into offsetting the extra cost of these power plants by using the captured carbon to recover more oil from nearby wells. The hope is that China could then move to build coal plants that can stash their carbon in vast underground aquifers. The latter technique would be necessary for coal CCS to ever become widespread.  (A recent study suggested that the United States had enough space in its underground saline aquifers to store 100 years' worth of coal-plant emissions.) But making this all work is still a ways off.

Environmentalists tend to be divided over carbon-capture technology. Those in favor, like James Fallows, argue that coal isn't going away, so we need to figure out how to blunt the impact of all that pollution. Opponents counter that CCS is too pricey, that there's a risk the stored carbon-dioxide could leak out, and that we should just phase out coal use altogether and shift to renewable energy.

Those arguments are all well-taken. But the report does make one point that rarely gets emphasized here. Perhaps it's possible for the world to abandon coal entirely. Perhaps not. But even setting that aside, we still don't have many good options for curtailing carbon emissions from cement or iron or steel or ceramic plants. Since those are all major sources of emissions too, the world will likely have to figure out how to make CCS work if it wants to stave off rising temperatures, regardless of one's thoughts on coal.

Further reading:

 — A helpful primer on what carbon capture is, how it works, what it can do. There are maps and graphs.

 — The CBO has taken a look at why carbon-capture efforts aren't going so well in the United States.

 — For those who really want to wonk out, here's a 2010 paper (pdf) from the Energy Department on why CCS that depends on enhanced oil recovery is unlikely to be a good stepping-stone to widespread CCS.

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