A new report released on May 5 by Greenpeace, False Hope: why carbon capture and storage won't save the climate, puts the case against governments' obsession with a technology they calculate will breath life into the dirty fossil fuel industry.
In just 44 pages, Emily Rochon from Greenpeace International sets out the science and technology of carbon capture, transportation and storage (CCS), and the financial and environmental risks and costs of adopting it on a large scale.
Protagonists for CCS technology (mainly corporate, but more recently the World Wide Fund for Nature has joined the chorus) take it as a given that fossil fuels will remain part of the new sustainable energy mix that countries who have signed onto Kyoto pledge to move towards.
CCS supporters say the negative impact on the climate of burning fossil fuels will be reduced by capturing CO2 from power stations' smokestacks and storing it underground. For the coal industry, government leaders such as federal energy and resources minister Martin Ferguson and professor Ross Garnaut — whose draft report on carbon trading is due out by the end of June — CCS is an integral part of the justification for the construction of new coal-fired power plants.
"Coal is set to play a big role in future Australian prosperity", Garnaut told a NSW government "clean coal" summit in Sydney on May 7.
But according to Rochon, "If current plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in coal plants are realised, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal would increase by 60% by 2030".
The report argues that the heavily subsidised coal industry is pushing CCS as a way of ensuring its continued existence. This is despite the fact that the technology has not yet been proven and, importantly, won't be ready in time to drastically cut carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change.
As the Greenpeace report notes, "The earliest possibility for deployment of CCS at utility scale is not expected before 2030". But according to Bill Hare from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, industrialised countries need to make significant cuts in carbon emissions by 2020. This makes reliance on CCS a dangerous gamble.
The Greenpeace report argues that CSC technology not only wastes energy, its wide-scale application would erase efficiency gains and increase resource consumption. Rochon says that its expense could also lead to a doubling of plant costs, and electricity price increases to the consumer of between 21-91%.
"Money spent on CCS will divert investment away from sustainable solutions to climate change", Rochon notes, something the report takes up in more detail in chapter 5.
CCS also poses a potential threat to health, ecosystems and the climate, the report argues. A big CO2 leak from CCS plants during storage or in transit could result in the asphyxiation of people or animals. Even small but ongoing leaks will negate the CCS process of limiting the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide also dissolves to form an acid. While it is unclear how severe these risks will be given that there is not yet an operational plant, they are potential hazards.
Rochon logs some now abandoned, but expensive, efforts to set up CCS plants in Norway and the US. FutureGen, the Bush administration's flagship CCS project in the US, was hailed in 2003 as the first coal plant with near-zero emissions. Yet after delays and budget blow-outs the US government pulled the plug this January. The plant was supposed to be online in 2012, but never left the development phase.
FutureGen was a public-private project that included the US Department of Energy, American Electric and Power Service Corp, Anglo American, BHP Biliton, Rio Tinto and China's largest coal-fired power company China Huaneng Group. Not only did the state of Illinois, where the plant was being built, chip in with a US$17 million grant, a sales tax exemption on building materials and $50 million for project loans, it passed laws to protect FutureGen from financial and legal liability in the event of an unanticipated release of CO2. The state government even agreed to indemnify FutureGen from lawsuits and to pay for its insurance policies, Rochon noted.
In 2007, the DOE reassessed the project after costs had risen by 85% in three years to $1.8 billion. "FutureGen collapsed despite being promised an unprecedented level of support: a total of $1.3 billion of public funds, and being shielded from any legal responsibility. The debacle should serve as a warning to governments and industry considering investing in CCS", Rochon stated.
Australia's first CCS project, the Otway Basin Project in south-west Victoria, was opened in early April. But there is widespread skepticism about CCS becoming a significant future energy source. Polling by the Climate Institute, reported in the May 8 Sydney Morning Herald, showed 74% of those polled said that new electricity should be generated from renewable sources and 60% wanted cuts to subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
But as the fate of FutureGen reveals, the enormous public costs associated with technologies that are yet to be proven make CCS a risky proposition, given the need for big carbon cuts now to avoid dangerous warming.
"The real solutions to stopping climate change lie in renewable energy and energy efficiencies that can start protecting the climate today", Rochon argued. "Huge reductions in energy demand are possible with efficiency measures that save more money than they cost to implement. Technically accessible renewable energy sources — such as wind, wave and solar — are capable of providing six times more energy than the world currently consumes — forever", she concluded.
[The report can be found at <http://www.greenpeace.org>.]