KSJ Tracker August 19, 2013

Huff Post - Tom Zeller Jr. : What's hanging up carbon burial anyway? (Hint: $$$$$, willpower, leadership... the usual)

Image source EnergyTribune http://tinyurl.com/k8qj6l4

  Nobody ever said that making coal, natural gas, and petroleum into climate-friendly fuels would be easy. Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog today carries a link to a long, somewhat morose look at the money and technical issues that make the deep geological burial, or sequestration, of waste CO2 such a tough political sell. So I took a look at it, thank you Andy. It is a good and analytical piece that looks spot-on from here as far as what it does say. It is valuable reading for reporters or for anybody eager for a low-carbon economy to use as reality check. However, one does wish its perspective was broader. More on that below.

   First, a few self-serving disclosures. Zeller is such a good reporter that he was chosen for the 2013-14 Knight Science Journalism Fellows class. I was on the selection committee and can testify that the competition was tough. He is on staff at Huff Post, with a previous stint at the NYTimes. Example: A NYTimes story in May looked at a comparision of CO2 emissions from natural gas and from such fuels as coal - with an accounting that put the former in the same league as the latter.

   His latest on CCS (Carbon Capture and S for take your pick, sequestration or storage) is thorough and emphatic. It lays out why CCS projects are rare, and why none are working at a scale that reveals how it might work if undertaken as a climate change solution of the first magnitude. Part of the story is set at MIT, where a faculty member laid out the bare numbers of this gargantuan task for him. Also noted are the oodles of carbon that would have to be buried, the thousands of miles of CO2 pipelines to get the waste CO2 to the stations that can pump below deep and secure strata, the ferocious blowback from defenders of the need to keep coal cheap and plentiful, etc. Pumping so much stuff into the Earth - more than the volume of coal coming out - might cause small earthquakes with big political impact. Some of it might leak back out. The energy to do the job would be roughly equivalent to a third or more of the electricity the burnt coal yields. Ergo utility bills would go up apace. It is, as Revkin says in his post, effective but depressing.

   Little of the report's info is new, but it is packaged well.

    It might have been  better (meaning longer). Welcome would be a look at the economic consequences of a best-case CCS plan in broader context. By best case, I mean evidence it works, it scales, almost all of the CO2 will stay deep in the Earth, leaks are exceedingly unlikely to endanger lives to any significant degree, and that a plausible global system of carbon taxes, atmospheric dumping fees (or fines), or just plain governmental edicts can subject most fossil fuels to CCS requirements.

   If those things happen, what in everyday numbers would this do to the price of groceries, cars, electricity (especially if we use itmore efficiently), and how would those changes compare to variations in commodity prices we've already gone through without societal collapse? Crude oil prices zoom all over, and generally have doubled in the last six years or so. CCS looks to increase the price of using coal by (Zeller writes) about 40 percent. Doesn't seem like more than a modern economy can absorb. So why, exactly, does he write that CCS is "prohibitively expensive." Politics prohibits it, or fundamental inability to pay higher prices prohibits it? This is the difference between not wanting to pay a price, and just plain not having the money for it.

  Surely somebody, an Amory Lovins perhaps, might have provided a rosier opinion of the plausibility of making CCS a requirement, and perhaps then permitting the world's indusjtrial powers merrily to go on using not-quite-so-cheap-any more fossil fuels for electricity.

   If I were a smart coal-consuming industry I'd get ready for CCS and I'd find the geological formations as near as possible and start some tests and, most enticing, build some ginormous wind and solar farms on top of those formations. The wind and solar power would be dedicated to just one thing: running sequestration pumps and other infrastructure. That way I'd only burn as much required for outside sale of products (electricity, heat, etc), while paying wholesale for renewable power to bury the exhaust. And at night and for when the wind dies, I'd just store the exhaust until the sun and wind come back - then pump away.

   Clean and green. To be sure, I've done no homework. Maybe this fantasy is part of the pipe dream that Zeller's story has in its headline.


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