JONATHAN PAUL MARSHALL. Carbon Capture and Storage yet Again.

Mar 4, 2020

Despite the jaded history of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in Australia, the Government has announced it will fund it rather than Renewables.

CCS is costly, and faces numerous unsolved problems, while renewable energy would not produce the emissions that CCS is supposed to diminish.

The Federal Government, through the Energy Minister Angus Taylor, has proposed that taxpayers’ money should be invested in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) research, rather than in aiding the supposedly now ‘developed’ renewables sector.

A Climate Council press release responded to Mr Taylor’s speech:

“The Federal Government has signaled a move away from investing in the solutions we already have at our disposal – wind and solar – to technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS)….

“‘Carbon Capture and Storage is incredibly expensive. It is not a climate solution, but an attempt to prolong the role of fossil fuels in the energy system’.”

The Government’s slogan is “technology, not taxes” as “humans have an extraordinary ability to innovate.” However, that ingenuity does not mean every conception is viable in time, either in terms of financial cost, technological development, effectiveness of results, or safety of operation.

CCS is not the Government’s only plan for investment in research; hydrogen, lithium, livestock feed supplements, and biological sequestration are also named. But CCS is amongst the most dubious of research areas.

The first Australian geo-sequestration project, the Otway project in Victoria, was proposed in 1998. It appears to be still in development after at least a cost of $100m. The Howard Government promised “$21.8 million… for [a] new Co-operative Research Centre on CO2 that will build on work already carried out to place Australia at the leading edge of geo-sequestration technology.” The Minister David Kemp made it clear that CCS and other supported technologies would safeguard the use of Australia’s “vast reserves of low cost brown coal.” That Government’s clean energy white paper also mentioned a “low emission technology fund” which was to have $700m to spend on many ideas including CCS. It is hard to see how much was spent in that area.

The Rudd and Gillard Governments continued the approach with more CCS funding, launching the “Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act” and the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, promising $2b for CCS under the Clean Energy Initiative. All this money generated a truly remarkable lack of interest from the coal industry. On the whole, we can say the coal industry used the presence of funds and some low grade projects to promise clean coal in some fantasy future. They did almost no research at all. Therefore, there is little evidence to suggest that new funding will significantly reduce coal emissions.

Nevertheless, research into carbon extraction is needed. If we wish to keep temperature increases below 20, then as well as stopping emissions, we need to remove greenhouse gases (GHG) from the air. The longer we emit GHG the more we need to remove. However, technological (as opposed to aided biological) carbon removal has three fundamental problems:

1) Carbon extraction requires quite of lot of energy generated of top of what we already use. Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University claims that his “research finds that [CCS] reduces only a small fraction of carbon emissions, and it usually increases air pollution” because of the energy needed to run it.

2) What do you do with the carbon once you have removed it? Carbon is common, and generally not very valuable. Some people suggest it should be returned to the soil in bio-available forms, or used to make bricks, or converted into fuel, or used to extract the last drop of oil or gas from old wells, which is somewhat counter-productive. CCS proposes that the extracted material is useless and should be stored underground, usually in old gas or oil fields.

3) Carbon dioxide exists in pretty low atmospheric concentrations, so a large amount of air has to be processed for worthwhile levels of removal. According to one estimate, assuming 100% efficiency, “to get a ton of CO2, we’d need to filter it out of about 1.3 million cubic meters of air”. This adds to the energy consumption of the process. The usual solution is to carry out the removal where there are heavy emissions, such as at coal fired power stations. However, no known carbon removal process is 100% effective, so emissions will be released.

One of the world’s largest storage systems, the Chevron gas Gorgon facility in Western Australia, will, at best, store between 3.4 and 4.0 million tonnes of CO2 per annum. So far, this project is storing CO2 extracted from its gas production. So while it may have reduced emissions, it is hardly lessening overall emissions from burning gas, and is far less effective than lowering the amount of gas being burnt.

Added to this, the storage option of CCS has to be ruled as unproven and difficult for the following reasons.

1) No examples exist of either carbon capture or storage working at anything near the volumes required. The research required is significant, and it will take a long time to apply in the real world.

2) There is the problem of leakage, and the difficulties monitoring those leaks, especially with offshore storage underwater. If the storage site is an old oil or gas field then exit points are often plentiful. Leaks are also possible in transport to the storage place. Leaks undo the whole process.

3) While there is dispute about this, CO2 storage may increase the possibility of earthquakes, increasing the possibility of leaks.

4) Sudden leaks may produce fatalities. Concentrations of CO2 over 10%, even in the presence of oxygen, can be fatal.

5) Leakage and underground flow may produce unpleasant tastes or introduce poisons to underground water supplies. This is particularly problematic given the importance of underground water to Australia.

6) As stated above, CCS requires extra energy, adds to operational costs, and possibly increases fossil fuel consumption.

7) Due to running costs and capital expenditure, CCS is likely to significantly increase energy prices, which is something the Government wishes to avoid. Without massive subsidies, competition may force CCS power stations out of the market.

8) Monitoring and responsibility for discovered leakage. Companies rarely remain solvent forever, and the GHG need to be stored for a long time. Companies are likely to find the costs of policing leaks annoying, and have incentives to be desultory. This leaves ultimate liability with the taxpayers, which gives further incentives for companies to delay reporting leaks.

9) Difficulties in retrofitting old coal power stations for CCS may lead to the building of new coal or gas power stations, locking in emissions.

10) It requires a massive spending on infrastructure. In 2006, Vaclav Smil estimated:

“Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions [at that time 3 Gt CO2] would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to [transport and] force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by petroleum industry.”

A build of such size is also likely to have significant emissions. So the process seems unviable at the levels we need.

In Australia, Carbon Capture and Storage will likely waste money for insignificant emissions reductions. However expenditure on improving the grid will lead to more investment opportunities for working low emissions technologies while removing the need for CCS to reduce current emissions.

Jonathan Paul Marshall is an ARC supported researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney, investigating problems with climate technologies.

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