Coal Tattoo

CCS update: Coal supporters dropping the ball?

On Friday, I had a fun and interesting discussion via Twitter with my good friend Ry Rivard, statehouse reporter across the hall at the Charleston Daily Mail.

Young Ry  had “retweeted” a link to a Guardian story headlined, Flagship UK carbon capture project ‘close to collapse‘, which reported:

A £1bn flagship government project for fighting climate change – the construction of a prototype carbon capture and storage (CCS) project at Longannet in Scotland – is on the verge of collapse, it emerged on Thursday.

Talks between the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) and Scottish Power have run into deep trouble and the electricity supplier is expected to pull the plug on the government-promoted scheme, which hoped to bury carbon emissions from the coal power station in the North Sea.

The potential demise of the scheme comes amid growing fears among renewable power enthusiasts that David Cameron and George Osborne want to scale back the “green” agenda on the grounds that low-carbon energy schemes such as CCS and offshore wind cost too much at a time of austerity. Osborne told the Conservative party conference in Manchester that if he had his way the UK would cut “carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe”.

I tweeted back at Ry, pointing out an earlier Guardian story headlined, Carbon capture progress has lost momentum, says energy agency. That story reported:

The financial crisis and fading government support for climate action have seriously eroded global plans to capture and store carbon, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned on Thursday.

Sequestration – the depositing of greenhouse gases underground rather than into the atmosphere – was supposed to account for a fifth of the world’s emissions reductions under the agency’s roadmap for keeping global temperature rise within 2C (4F) by the end of the century.

But delegates including the US energy secretary, Steven Chu, heard at a meeting, held in Beijing, that the global temperature is on course to rise by 3.5C, due to poor progress both on carbon capture and storage, and on acceptance of a carbon price and other carbon-cutting efforts.

Importantly, the story said:

IEA deputy executive director, Richard Jones, told the meeting, hosted by the Washington-based Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, that this would wreak havoc on human wellbeing. He added that time was running out to avoid this scenario because of slow progress on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

“Every year that passes makes it more difficult,” Jones said. “With current policies, CCS will have a hard time [being] deployed … There is less of a global push for climate action, and tighter government finances.”

And, it included this important stuff as well:

US energy secretary Steven Chu told the meeting the price of carbon would have to be $80 a tonne for CCS to be economically viable with current technology.

But, he continued, the US has yet to even set a price, which makes it difficult for companies to invest and financial institutions to make loans to CCS projects.

“The US needs a price on carbon sooner rather than later,” said Chu. “This is something where we are losing time. It is very important that we get moving.”

Now, Ry responded with this:

Am I mistaken, but it was my impression haven’t you suggested large-scale CCS may never work?

And this:

Why does it then make sense to raise the price of carbon to encourage a technology that may not work?

And he suggested I was using CCS as a “red herring”:

.. If clean coal isn’t possible, let’s not use what some wld say is unicorn technology as the excuse to set carbon price.

That’s an interesting bit of debate strategy there from Ry. But he misses the point, or at least he misses my point. Or maybe I didn’t explain myself very well … thus this blog post.

If you want to know about CCS, and about its potential role in dealing with climate change, I’d refer you first to this major report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  It’s also worth reading The Future of Coal from MIT and Coal Power in a Warming World from the Union of Concerned Scientists.  For an environmental group’s point of view, check out the report False Hope from Greenpeace. And see what the coal industry has to say by checking out this information from the National Mining Association.

Two years ago, I spent a fair amount of time researching and writing a lengthy Sunday story about carbon capture and storage. We headlined it, Coal vs. Climate: Will Greenhouse Controls Come Before It’s Too Late (subscription required).  It reported:

… Coal is in a race with the climate.

The planet is heating up faster than scientists thought it would just a few years ago. Experts say greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced soon, before it’s too late.

At the same time, the coal industry says it needs more time to perfect and deploy technology to capture and store carbon dioxide from power plants.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is expensive. It sucks up a lot of a power plant’s energy and takes up tremendous space.

Power companies haven’t figured out exactly how to do CCS on the monumental scale needed. And experts aren’t sure if pumping such huge amounts of compressed CO2 underground is really safe.

Nobody knows if coal or climate is going to win this important race, but the world is watching, and even some of the strongest advocates of CCS have started to make it clear that the path ahead for coal is far from easy.

As the story says — and as just about every expert on the subject has tried to make clear — there are significant questions about CCS. But the IPCC, the leading scientific organization on climate change, believes that CCS could be one of the important tools for mitigating global warming. But as I reported in that story two years ago, it’s not at all clear that’s going to happen especially soon:

Nearly a decade ago, the IPCC had warned that the coal industry “producing the most carbon intensive of products, faces almost inevitable decline in the long term.”

The 2001 report noted that CCS technologies were being tested, but would not make “major contributions” to emissions cuts until at least 2020.

Then, in a 2005 report – its most detailed examination of CCS – the IPCC concluded carbon capture at coal plants could provide somewhere between 15 and 54 percent of the emissions reductions needed by 2100.

But most of those reductions aren’t expected to happen until the second half of the century. And in its 2007 assessment, the IPCC warned that CCS might not make “important contributions” to climate change mitigation until after 2030, a decade later than previously thought.

My reporting tells me that coalfield political leaders aren’t really speaking the truth about CCS. They like to make out like “clean coal” is already here, that this is a silver bullet … don’t look behind this curtain … there’s nothing to fear. That’s simply not the case, based on the literature and what experts say.

At the same time, do we know that CCS will work? Do we know for sure it’s safe, economical, etc.? No we don’t. But it’s really the only hope coal has. The industry and its political supports claim it’s the path to truly “clean coal”.

If coalfield political leaders want coal to be part of the nation’s (and the world’s) energy future, then shouldn’t they realize that CCS is the only path to follow?  And isn’t one major hurdle the lack of a “carbon price” — through requirements for greenhouse emissions reductions — that would force the industry to work far more quickly to perfect and deploy the necessary technology?

But most of the region’s political leaders (and certainly most of the media here) vigorously oppose any sort of legislation that would require emissions reductions and therefore help push CCS along.  It’s worth asking these politicians over and over: How do you expect “clean coal” to actually happen if the industry isn’t given some economic incentive to play ball?