Carbon Storage: A Silver Bullet for Emissions?

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Canada’s federal government says Carbon Capture and Storage is the key to cutting greenhouse gases

by Ian Angus 

This week, Canada’s federal government revealed new details about its supposed plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Last year in Canadian Dimension, I described the plan as “a complete and total fraud” and “a recipe for inaction and delay.” The latest announcement amply confirms that judgment.

Energy Minister John Baird has revealed new details, but the plan still aims to reduce “emissions-intensity,” while allowing actual emissions to increase — tar sands operators will be able to triple their emissions with no penalty. It still includes loopholes and exemptions that are big enough to drive a tar sands loader through. It still allows big emitters to buy their way out of doing anything at all.

Betting on CCS, Sort Of

The one new thing in this announcement is a claim that the very worst polluters in Canada — power plants and tar sands operations — will be required to implement Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). They’ll have to install equipment that captures CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and then they’ll have to pump the gas underground, where it will remain forever.

Like the rest of the plan, this sounds good until you examine the details. Most notably:

  • The CCS requirement only applies to plants and tar sands operations that begin operations in 2012 and later. Existing facilities, and those completed in the next three years, are exempt.
  • The CCS requirement — actually “a cleaner fuel Standard based on carbon capture and storage technology” — won’t actually apply until 2018.

Most companies exempt, and a 10-year delay on regulations. That’s what the Harper government means by “Getting Tough on Industry’s Emissions.”

Will It Work?

The Harper-Baird cabal (like the carbon tax advocates in B.C.) present CCS as a silver bullet, a new technology that will magically solve a problem that they’d really rather ignore.

But getting magic to work in the real world can be difficult. Just two months ago, a major report to the Minister from the pro-business and pro-CCS National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy said:

“Technologies such as CCS are largely untested on a massive scale … While small-scale CCS has been proven, the scalability of these small initiatives is untested.”

Let’s be more explicit: only a handful of working Carbon Capture facilities exist, in the entire world. All are very small. Not one could handle the CO2 from the smallest coal-fired power plant in Canada or anywhere else.

No one knows when or if the technology will work on a large scale, or how much CO2 a large-scale operation would actually capture.

And no one knows what it will cost. The Integrated CO2 Network (ICO2N), a very pro-CCS coalition of big Canadian energy companies, says “capture costs are significant and present an economic challenge.” That’s a critical issue, because under capitalism CCS will not be deployed — it won’t even be developed — unless there are substantial profits to be made.

Is It Safe?

But even if carbon capture works and is cost-effective, there are significant questions about the long-term reliability and safety of underground geologic storage. The Union of Concerned Scientists warns:

“While the potential environmental consequences and risks to public safety are generally acknowledged but frequently dismissed as minor, these environmental concerns are insufficiently studied through systematic research to date. These risks include:

“Direct risks to humans

  • the potential for environmental risks to humans, such as catastrophic venting of CO2, i.e., the rapid re-release of stored gas in toxic concentrations from underground storage sites;
  • the potential for potable aquifer contamination; and
  • the possible risk of induced seismicity (earthquakes) due to underground movement of displaced fluids.

“Environmental risks

  • the yet-unknown permanence of underground carbon storage, i.e., the re-release of carbon dioxide, thus delaying, but ultimately not solving the emission problem; given the energy penalty associated with carbon separation, if stored carbon is re-released to the atmosphere over time scales of years or decades, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will increase;
  • continued (and possibly increased) reliance on fossil fuels with the associated adverse environmental consequences at fossil-fuel extraction sites, particularly in ecologically sensitive areas;
  • adverse environmental impacts associated with extensive expansion of pipeline facilities necessary for the transfer of CO2 to deposition sites if implemented on a large scale; and
  • unknown impacts on the biological communities that live in deep saline formations and other storage sites.”

In the words of the International Energy Agency:

“Unless it can be proven that CO2 can be permanently and safely stored over the long term, the option will be untenable, whatever its additional benefits.”

They Don’t Care

Harper, Baird and Co. know all this. They don’t care.

In politics, a decade is several lifetimes. By putting off the CCS requirement to 2018, they are offloading the problem onto other politicians and other governments. They are ensuring that the corporations affected will have lots of time to lobby for changes and exemptions and further delays. (The president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has already said that his group will ask Ottawa for more time.)

When a politician promises to do something in ten years, he is putting it off forever. Where climate change is concerned, that’s worse than irresponsible — it’s downright criminal.

Related Reading

(Both of these articles are included in the Climate and Capitalism anthology, Confronting the Climate Change Crisis)

Other sources quoted in this article