OSCAPE: Oxygen Capture and Storage – and possible Eruption

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is sometimes touted as a promising technology for the future. But as Craig Morris points out, the technology is nothing new; it simply does not exist the way it is portrayed. Recent events in Canada and the US suggest that Germany’s lack of interest is sensible.

CCS

CCS is an expensive, untested end-of-pipe technology – the best carbon is the one that is not emitted at all. (Photo by Bodoklecksel, CC BY-SA 3.0)


CCS, we are told, will make coal power largely carbon-neutral. Instead of spewing carbon into the atmosphere, the plants will have their CO2 emissions captured and stored safely. We know the technology works; it simply has never been used for that purpose. As an article from April in Nature illustrates, there is no commercial CCS project anywhere in the world. All we have to date is pilot projects.

The first commercial project will launch soon in Saskatchewan, Canada, capturing 90 percent of the coal plant’s CO2 emissions. But the carbon will not be stored to reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Rather, the firm that owns the plant “will pipe decompressed gas deep underground to flush out stubborn oil reserves.”

Likewise, the Kemper County project described in Nature takes CO2 from a coal plant in Mississippi and ships it through Louisiana for injection into dying oilfields in Texas. In both cases, the CO2 is used to get more carbon out of the ground.

The Nature article mentions the high cost of the project, and a local website explains that the Mississippi Public Service Commission and the Mississippi Power Company reached an agreement in 2013 to increase retail rates by 21 percent for the Kemper project. That’s just for the first seven years, after which time rates are expected to go up by roughly the same amount again.

Here, we begin to see how feeble the business case is for CCS. If you use it to extract more oil, your retail rates only go up by around 40 percent in eight years. How much will they go up if we simply store the CO2 without further commercial use?

Another problem is storage. Where in the world will we have caverns in close proximity to coal plants so that large amounts of CO2 can be stored?

Onshore storage of CO2 is currently illegal not only in Germany, but also in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Austria (PDF). The German ban was typical of the country’s energy policy; the federal government basically said CCS can go ahead any time a state government wants to have such projects. None will, partly because of safety concerns. Given the weak economic case for CCS, you might wonder why any country would bother banning it. Two weeks ago, we may have seen one reason why in Colorado.

The media are speaking of a “mudslide” four miles wide, three miles long, and hundreds of feet deep – caused by a pond 5-7 feet deep! The problem is that there is no mud; the land is dry. Take a look at the video here yourself.

A radio show host wondered why a mudslide caused by water would be so dry, so he began looking into the area – and found that it is the site not only of numerous fracking wells, but also of CO2 injection. He surmises that the CO2 came bubbling out, bringing miles of dirt along with it.

From Germany, it is hard to judge the accuracy of that conclusion, and all officials in Colorado continue to speak of unnatural events, albeit one that (as the Governor himself put it) hasn’t occurred in the past 10,000 years. Reliant on ad money, local media are unlikely to investigate; reliant on campaign financing, politicians aren’t either.

Whether or not the landslide in Colorado turns out to be the result of CO2 injections, CCS is a misnomer. As my colleague Yves Heuillard recently argued, carbon dioxide (not carbon) is captured in the process. CO2 consists of two parts of oxygen for every part of carbon. The carbon comes from the ground – from the coal – and goes back into the ground, making the process carbon-neutral. But the oxygen comes from the atmosphere.

The net effect of CCS would therefore be the removal of oxygen from the atmosphere. Since my organism runs partly on oxygen, I’m not sure I like that outcome.

So there you have it – CCS is prohibitively expensive, currently only exists as a way of getting more carbon out of the ground, and storage will be potentially dangerous. And its name should probably be oxygen capture, storage, and possible corruption – or OSCAPE, for short.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

2 Comments

  1. jmdesp says

    The trouble is that many of the plans to get carbon free *need* CCS. Most of the time they rely on the retrofit to CCS of many already or soon to build plants in order to keep emissions low enough. Without CCS, things become a lot harder.
    If one also admits that we are very far from accessible, cheap enough, industrialized enough, large scale solution for storage, a single installation like Goldisthal has been very hard to build, how to have dozens like it ?, then the solution become excessively hard. And the time inappropriate to despise any possible option to easier the task, however big the reservations about it’s cost and security.

  2. Chris Littlecott says

    This article is very disappointing, coming from an organisation and a journalist with such positive reputations as supporters of environmental progress.

    With the energiewende facing valid questions of how it will deliver on the necessary scale and speed of reductions in carbon emissions, it is important to find ways of discussing how different forms of carbon capture and storage might be appropriate for the German context.

    There are very good reasons why it was appropriate for environmental groups to oppose the ‘figleaf’ proposals for CCS on lignite and coal power generation in Germany a few years back, which would have locked in unabated carbon emissions for decades and continued the dominance of the big utilities.

    But it is now clear that the utilities have no intention of deploying CCS unless they are forced to do so. They continue to deny the reality of climate change and delay action on CCS. At present, they are clinging to hopes of a weak ETS and the provision of capacity payments as a means of continuing to operate their existing assets.

    In this context, a refusal to take CCS seriously (or, worse, scaremongering about its implications) is a big help to the utilities. It gives them the excuse they need to continue operating unabated.

    Even more negatively, the continued positioning of CCS as only applicable to coal and lignite ignores its application to industrial sources of CO2 emissions (many of which have no alternative if they are to decarbonise), to gas power generation (which provides more power output for less CO2 stored), and to biomass (as a means of reducing the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere). There are real public interest benefits to these applications of CCS, including job retention, low-carbon materials production (steel, cement etc) and reduced costs of decarbonisation as well as reduced emissions. These also all fit well with historic German thinking in respect to industrial ecologies and synergies between sectors.

    In this light, this article ‘s conclusion is a huge help to the opponents of CCS in the coal sector and utilities. It’s a shame to see you doing their dirty work.

    For a critical look at the European approach to CCS from an environmental perspective, readers may be interested in this: http://www.engonetwork.org/Moving_CCS_Forward_in_Europe_May_24.pdf

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