A Memo to John Baird on Carbon Capture and Storage

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“It won’t do the job, no one knows if it is safe, and it won’t arrive in time”

TO: JOHN BAIRD, Minister of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada

Dear Mr. Baird:

You recently announced that your government will impose tough measures “cut our greenhouse gas emissions an absolute 20% by 2020.” Central to that promise was a proposed regulation requiring that any electrical plants opened after 2012 be designed to use Carbon Capture and Storage, and that CCS be actually implemented in those plants by 2018.

CCS, as you know, involves “capturing” CO2 emissions at their source, and then “storing” them at least a kilometre underground, where the pressure will keep the gas in liquid form, and where, you hope, they will stay indefinitely. That’s the theory — there are no working commercial CCS operations anywhere in the world, only a handful of tiny test sites.

When you made the announcement, I wrote that this was just another attempt to delay action on emissions. Unfortunately, evidence confirming that judgment continues to flow in.

A recent issue of New Scientist magazine features an article by Fred Pearce, who surveys up the state of CCS science and technology, and asks the very pertinent question “Can clean coal live up to its promise?” You should read it. According to that article, the UK government is almost as enthusiastic about CCS as you are. The senior minister for industry has predicted that by 2030 up to a third of electricity in Britain could be generated by “clean coal” plants using CCS. Pearse comments:

“Unfortunately, few in the energy industry believe these deadlines are remotely achievable. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called The Future of Coal, published last year, suggests that the first commercial CCS plants won’t be on stream until 2030 at the earliest.

“Thomas Kuhn of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents most US power generators, half of whose fuel is coal, takes a similar line. In September, he told a House Select Committee that commercial deployment of CCS for emissions from large coal-burning power stations will require 25 years of R&D and cost about $20 billion.

“The energy company Shell, though enthusiastic about the technology, doesn’t foresee CCS being in widespread use until 2050.”

Pearce also discusses the problem of safety and longevity — will the CO2 actually stay in the ground? A scientist familiar with a CCS test site in Norway says that it hasn’t leaked, but she admits it may not be typical.

“So far, tests have been small-scale, short-term and largely at sites that geologists judge will perform best. In the real world, Hovorka points out, geologists will be under pressure to find burial sites close to power plants, where the rock formations may be less than perfect. …. She also admits there is no method yet for deciding how much CO2 a particular rock formation can absorb before leaking, and how to spot if things are going wrong.”

Even if it works – CCS will not capture all the CO2 generated by a power plant, and it will actually create emissions of its own.

“Yet even the best CCS systems will not capture all the CO2, and existing methods typically capture only about 85 per cent. In reality the figures are even more unfavourable, as the CCS process itself consumes anything from 10 to 40 per cent of the energy produced by a fossil-fuel power station.

“Another factor to be taken into account is the energy used by diggers, trucks and trains to extract coal and transport it to the power station. In all, this may take up to a quarter of the energy the coal produces at the power plant …”

The most detailed assessment of this problem published to date concludes that CCS would reduce GHG emissions from coal-fired power stations by two-thirds – at best!

But of course you know all this. There are many very knowledgeable, very intelligent people in your department, and I’m sure they have told you the truth about CCS: it won’t do the job, no one knows if it is safe, and it won’t arrive in time. You have been told that, and yet you chose to tell the public that CCS is the silver bullet needed to stop Canada from continuing as one of the worst GHG emitters in the world.

Given that, Mr. Baird, why should we believe that you really want to cut greenhouse gas emissions and deal effectively with global warming? Why shouldn’t we draw the obvious conclusion that your “Turning the Corner” plan is just more greenwash, that it simply continues the long-time Conservative and Liberal policy of avoiding action on climate change?

Yours truly,
Ian Angus, Editor
Climate and Capitalism