Climate Change Update: Where We Are Today with Carbon Capture Technology

With the Rio conference seeking a common set of policies and actions for global sustainability, climate change and global warming are among the important agenda items. Since greenhouse gas (GHG) is the primary source of atmospheric warming seeking ways to remediate it will be discussed.

Among the many ways to deal with GHG emissions is the reducing of our dependence on emission sources, principally fossil fuels. Another way is coming up with technology that rids the atmosphere of GHG already there and at current emission sources.

Capturing GHG to neutralize its impact has been proposed by energy industry leaders and governments. The technology is called carbon capture and sequestration or CCS. Those developing the technology hope to capture from 15 to 55% of the GHG we put into the air. Let’s look at our current efforts.

Lots of CCS Pilot Projects Planned and Many Cancelled or On Hold

Air Products and Chemicals Inc., an American company, is one of a number of carbon capture projects designed to compress and store GHG underground. It is funded by a combination of industry and government. Emissions from natural gas, oil-fired and coal-fired power plants will be piped to a storage site where the gas will be injected underground. The project is described as  a pilot, a test to demonstrate GHG capture from two steam methane reformer (SMIR) hydrogen production plants. The gas will be delivered in liquid form by pipeline to the injection site, an old oil field. The GHG will be stored underground and used for a second purpose, to implement enhanced oil recovery (EOR) within the field. That means the CO2 will serve to concentrate the remaining oil so that it can be pumped to the surface. The project hopes to harvest 3.1 million barrels of oil while removing 90% of the CO2 from the existing gas stream. Expected sequestration should yield 1 million metric tons of GHG per year.  There is, however, no absolute assurance that the CO2 will not leak back out after the field is depleted and capped. The project should go online in 2012. It is one of 10 similar pilot projects operating or planned in the United States.

In contrast here in my country, Canada, we have just witnessed a major CCS project being killed. Project Pioneer, a joint venture of three companies, Alberta and the federal government, was shut down in April 2012, with the business partners citing a lack of a cap and trade policy to justify the expenditure even with government participation. The project planned to take captured CO2 from three power plants and store it underground in rock formations at a depth between 2,600 and 2,800 meters (8,530 to 9,190 feet). Work was already underway with $1.9 billion allocated for the project at the time of its cancellation. The demise of this joint venture reflects the general concern around CCS’s value in light of a lack of global cap and trade policy.

If you want to see a list of all CCS projects planned or on stream you can visit a Massachusetts Institute of Technology worldwide database online that tracks the industry. This Carbon Capture & Sequestration Technologies website lists 18 small-scale CCS power plant pilot projects under development or in operation with one project currently on hold. Of a total of 28 originally planned large-scale power plant CCS projects, only 18 are currently underway or operational. There are also CCS projects planned at 26 non-power plant sites. One of those is the plant being run by Air Products.

These CCS sites have been chosen because of location such as:

  • Gas and oil fields where CO2 extracted during well operations can be re-injected with potential EOR
  • Natural deposits can serve as CO2 traps (usually a porous rock or aquifer capped by an impervious layer of rock above it and well below groundwater sources)
  • Refinery sites located near depleted oil fields taking the CO2 from industrial processes and injecting it into stable rock formations
  • Steel and industrial manufacturing plants capturing CO2 emissions, compressing the gas and then pumping it underground.

Many CCS challenges remain. One of these is the lack of international agreement on CCS. The Kyoto Protocol mentions sequestration once in Article 2 of  the agreement but says nothing about regulating the technology. There are many unknowns about CCS. It is expensive to do. In the absence of cap and trade credits there is little in the way of financial incentive to implement the technology. Where countries are considering sub-seabed CCS strategies the international conventions governing the law of the sea do not pay enough attention to the risks and liability associated with such activities. Nor does the law of the sea establish clear ownership in the event of an accident that could occur decades after sequestration.  Where hydraulic fracturing for shale gas is being done near saline aquifers, there are concerns about using these sites for CCS because of the fear that the fractures created through the process will eventually allow CO2 to leak out and contaminate local groundwater, surface water and the air.

For the oil sands, CCS is seen as a technology that can reduce emissions during the upgrading of bitumen to synthetic crude. Shell Oil and Northwest Redwater Partnership are two oil sands operators hoping to develop CCS to capture 35% of facility emissions during refining. The CO2 would then be transported to conventional oil fields through a pipeline network for EOR and permanent underground storage.

The diagram above shows how CCS technology would be deployed in oil sand upgrader operations. The CO2 would be captured as it exits the smokestack. It would then be dehydrated, compressed and liquefied before being transported by pipeline and pumped into porous rock formations underground.                                            Source: Government of Alberta

So there are many questions about CCS that still need answers and we probably won’t know many of those for at least several decades, well after the projects underway begin operation and CO2 starts accumulating underground. If any of these CCS sites begin to leak, instead of solving GHG emissions we will have wasted billions of dollars developing a suspect technology, and we will be no further ahead in reducing our carbon footprint.

Would our money be better spent on:

  • finding carbon emission reductions through seeking alternative clean energy sources?
  • eliminating fossil fuel dependency for transportation?
  • practicing conservation and reduction strategies for the fossil fuels we have no choice but to consume for industrial purposes?

Considering the billions being expended for the projects underway and the lack of cap and trade policy these are fair questions.

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...