CCS plan subverted by local opposition

Two people at Raw Sugar, Ottawa

As mentioned before, the Swedish company Vattenfal has a carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration plant in Germany. The idea was to separate pure oxygen from air, burn coal in it, then ship the resulting carbon dioxide (CO2) to an injection facility 150 miles away by truck. The liquified CO2 was then to be injected 3,000 metres underground in a depleted gas field.

Now, due to local opposition, the CO2 is simply being vented into the atmosphere. The company has been unable to secure a permit to bury the carbon, so plans to begin doing to by March or April of this year have been scrapped.

It is hard not to be of two minds about this. On one hand, it is a justified blow against those who assume CCS will be a cheap and simple way to deal with climate change. There are big economic, safety, and effectiveness questions that need to be answered. At the same time, it will not be possible to answer those questions without the kind of demonstration plant Spremberg could be.

A world in which safe, effective, and affordable CCS technology exists is one where catastrophic and runaway climate change is less likely. This is true for both direct and indirect reasons. Directly, fossil-fuel fired plants with CCS would emit less than their non-CCS counterparts. Also, facilities that burned biomass and buried the carbon could actually be net-CO2-negative. Indirectly, making it possible to keep using fossil fuels a bit longer would lessen the level of opposition to the transition to a low carbon economy, particularly when it comes to poor, large, and rapidly developing states like India and China.

We will have to wait and see how other CCS pilot projects – in Europe and elsewhere – develop over the span of the next few years.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

18 thoughts on “CCS plan subverted by local opposition”

  1. Also, ‘subverted’ might be the wrong word here.

    If there really is a danger, local opposition is not inappropriate.

  2. Britain puts carbon capture to the test

    Method adds $1B to cost of power station

    By Nina Chestney, Reuters
    July 28, 2009

    A pilot project in Scotland has begun testing a method of cutting the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, which Britain hopes will be a leap forward in the fight against climate change.

    Doosan Babcock Energy switched on its OxyFuel combustion burner, Britain’s largest demonstration project for carbon capture and storage, on Friday.

  3. “The Doosan Babcock burner will not attempt to store CO2 but release it in a diluted, less harmful, form into the atmosphere.”

    Presumably a Nobel prize is in order, for the discovery that the climate-change impact of CO2 is reduced by diluting it.

    I’m not sure to whom this Hot Air Oscar nomination would be directed – to Doosan Babcock? to the journalist? – but anyway, this must be a strong contender for the Hot Air Oscar for most jaw-dropping twaddle about greenhouse gas emissions.

  4. Are you actually going to talk about the “subversion” of a CCS plan to inject liquid CO2 “3,000 metres underground in a depleted gas field.” without mentioning the dangers that the local community might have been averse towards? Such as the tendency of Co2 to mix with water under pressure to form carbonic acid, which might well eat through whatever mechanism we used to keep it under pressure? Since the local dangers associated with leakage appear to be high, painting local opposition with a nimby brush is the same as assuming they should absorb the risk in exchange for no specific benefit.

    On another note – by truck? They were going to ship the CO2 by truck?! It wasn’t possible, in Germany, to ship it by rail? Amazing.

  5. CCS may threaten people who live near power plants, but that is fairer than letting climate change proceed and endangering unrelated people everywhere.

    One good way to reduce externalities is to put the people causing them most at risk.

  6. CCS may cause horrid contamination of groundwater. Who does that hurt? Oh wait, everyone. Especially those who can’t import water from fuji.

  7. Cheap, safe, and effective CCS would be a very significant help in dealing with climate change: especially when it comes to India and China.

    While there are risks associated, the only way to comprehend and control them is to set up test facilities. While people do have a limited right to people not doing potentially dangerous things around them, we do not collectively have the right to keep imposing dangerous climate change on future generations and those around the world.

    As for groundwater contamination – if the carbon dioxide has gotten that close to the surface, the sequestration has failed. The whole idea is to put it in deep geological repositories with effective caprock above.

  8. Once injected into the storage formation, the fraction retained depends on a combination of physical and geochemical trapping mechanisms. Physical trapping to block upward migration of CO2 is provided by a layer of shale and clay rock above the storage formation. This impermeable layer is known as the “cap rock”. Additional physical trapping can be provided by capillary forces that
    retain CO2 in the pore spaces of the formation. In many cases, however, one or more sides of the formation remain open, allowing for lateral migration of CO2 beneath the cap rock. In these cases, additional mechanisms are important for the long-term entrapment of the injected CO2.

    The mechanism known as geochemical trapping occurs as the CO2 reacts with the in situ fluids and host rock. First, CO2 dissolves in the in situ water. Once this occurs (over time scales of hundreds of years to thousands of years), the CO2-laden water becomes more dense and therefore sinks down into the formation (rather than rising toward the surface). Next, chemical reactions between the dissolved CO2 and rock minerals form ionic species, so that a fraction of the injected CO2 will be converted to solid carbonate minerals over millions of years.

    Yet another type of trapping occurs when CO2 is preferentially adsorbed onto coal or organic-rich shales replacing gases such as methane. In these cases, CO2 will remain trapped as long as pressures and temperatures remain stable. These processes would normally take place at shallower depths than CO2 storage in hydrocarbon reservoirs and saline formations.

    IPCC Special Report. Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage. Technical Summary. p.32

    Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

    What are the local health, safety and environment risks of CCS?

    22. With appropriate site selection based on available subsurface information, a monitoring programme to detect problems, a regulatory system and the appropriate use of remediation methods to stop or control CO2 releases if they arise, the local health, safety and environment risks of geological storage would be comparable to the risks of current activities such as natural gas storage, EOR and deep underground disposal of acid gas.

    Natural CO2 reservoirs contribute to the understanding of the behaviour of CO2 underground. Features of storage sites with a low probability of leakage include highly impermeable caprocks, geological stability, absence of leakage paths and effective trapping mechanisms. There are two different types of leakage scenarios: (1) abrupt leakage, through injection well failure or leakage up an abandoned well, and (2) gradual leakage, through undetected faults, fractures or wells. Impacts of elevated CO2 concentrations in the shallow subsurface could include lethal effects on plants and subsoil animals and the contamination of groundwater. High fluxes in conjunction with stable atmospheric conditions could lead animals or people. Pressure build-up caused by CO2 injection could trigger small seismic events.

    While there is limited experience with geological storage, closely related industrial experience and scientific knowledge could serve as a basis for appropriate risk management, including remediation. The effectiveness of the available risk management methods still needs to be demonstrated for use with CO2 storage. If leakage occurs at a storage site, remediation to stop the leakage could involve standard well repair techniques or the interception and extraction of the CO2 before it would leak into a shallow groundwater aquifer. Given the long timeframes associated with geological storage of CO2, site monitoring may be required for very long periods (Sections 5.6, 5.7, Tables 5.4, 5.7, Figure 5.25).

    Will physical leakage of stored CO2 compromise
    CCS as a climate change mitigation option?

    25. Observations from engineered and natural analogues as well as models suggest that the fraction retained in appropriately selected and managed geological reservoirs is very likely to exceed 99% over 100 years and is likely to exceed 99% over 1,000 years.

    For well-selected, designed and managed geological storage sites, the vast majority of the CO2 will gradually be immobilized by various trapping mechanisms and, in that case, could be retained for up to millions of years. Because of these mechanisms, storage could become more secure over longer timeframes (Sections 1.6.3, 5.2.2,, Table 5.5).

  10. Hazards to groundwater from CO2 leakage and brine displacement

    Increases in dissolved CO2 concentration that might occur as CO2 migrates from a storage reservoir to the surface will alter groundwater chemistry, potentially affecting shallow groundwater used for potable water and industrial and agricultural needs. Dissolved CO2 forms carbonic acid, altering the pH of the solution and potentially causing indirect effects, including mobilization of (toxic) metals, sulphate or chloride; and possibly giving the water an odd odour, colour or taste.

    In the worst case, contamination might reach dangerous levels, excluding the use of groundwater for drinking or irrigation. Wang and Jaffé (2004) used a chemical transport model to investigate the effect of releasing CO2 from a point source at 100 m depth into a shallow water formation that contained a high concentration of mineralized lead (galena). They found that in weakly buffered formations, the escaping CO2 could mobilize sufficient dissolved lead to pose a health hazard over a radius of a few hundred metres from the CO2 source. This analysis represents an extreme upper bound to the risk of metal leaching, since few natural formations have mineral composition so susceptible to the effects of CO2-mediated leaching and one of the expressed requirements of a storage site is to avoid compromising other potential resources, such as mineral deposits.

    The injection of CO2 or any other fluid deep underground necessarily causes changes in pore-fluid pressures and in the geomechanical stress fields that reach far beyond the volume occupied by the injected fluid. Brines displaced from deep formations by injected CO2 can potentially migrate or leak through fractures or defective wells to shallow aquifers and contaminate shallower drinking water formations by increasing their salinity. In the worst case, infiltration of saline water into groundwater or into the shallow subsurface could impact wildlife habitat, restrict or eliminate agricultural use of land and pollute surface waters.

    As is the case for induced seismicity, the experience with injection of different fluids provides an empirical basis for assessing the likelihood that groundwater contamination will occur by brine displacement. As discussed in Section 5.5 and shown in Figure 5.22, the current site-specific injection rates of fluids into the deep subsurface are roughly comparable to the rates at which CO2 would be injected if geological storage were adopted for storage of CO2 from large-scale power plants. Contamination of groundwater by brines displaced from injection wells is rare and it is therefore expected that contamination arising from large-scale CO2 storage activities would also be rare. Density differences between CO2 and other fluids with which we have extensive experience do not compromise this conclusion, because brine displacement is driven primarily by the pressure/hydraulic head differential of the injected CO2, not by buoyancy forces.

  11. One good way to reduce externalities is to put the people causing them most at risk.

    Restricting the export of wastes could be a good way of improving environmental outcomes.

    If cities, provinces, and countries could not export hazardous waste (everything from medical waste to old computers), they would probably produce less of it, recycle more of it, and store what remains better.

    In what way, NIMBYism could be used as a force for good.

  12. China relies on coal for about 60 percent of its power.

    Without CCS, the chances of humanity dealing with climate change are significantly lower. That seems to justify the risks associated with testing it.

  13. CCS has way too many risks – it makes no sense to put people and communities at risk so they can burn up to 40% more coal to get the CO2 in the ground……… or to risk our most precious resource, our water.
    Let them put it under urban areas to test it………

    If there were no money to made doing this how anxious would they be to do it?

    Political Folly or Climate Change Fix?

    By Graham Thomson
    For the Program on Water Issues
    Munk Centre for International Studies

    Conclusions: A political fix

    Every year the burning of fossil fuels pours 30 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, a threat to climate security. Both the Alberta and Canadian governments have enthusiastically endorsed Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as a new and powerful tool to avert dangerous climate change. Industrialists, civil servants and university scientists generally agree that Canada won’t be able to maintain its standard of living or rate of fossil fuel consumption in a carbon constrained world without employing this controversial technology.

    Many sincere and credible scientists argue that CCS remains the best mitigation option to prevent global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees. Some environmental groups such as the Pembina Institute advocate for CCS as a bridging mechanism to reduce greenhouse gases while building and investing in renewable energy.

    The technology holds the promise of massive reductions in emissions but any success may ultimately be limited to a relatively few projects due to cost, liability, technology, scale and public skepticism. CCS may turn out to be another costly Faustian bargain and classic technical fix.

    The very promise of CCS, whether delivered or not, will extend the life of coal and other hydrocarbons, thus making more economies dependent on fossil fuels. Instead of buying us time to find alternate sources of clean energy, CCS is buying politicians’ time to avoid making tough, unpopular decisions. The allure of CCS threatens to divert resources from energy efficiency and delay more durable reforms. As one former nuclear expert put it: “CCS may be, politically, an easy way out of having to make more difficult and sustainable choices.”

    The Oil Sands Illusion: Although both federal and Alberta politicians have promoted CCS as a way to ‘green’ bitumen production in the oil sands, (Canada’s largest growing source of emissions) industry remains divided about its utility and cost. Of 20 firms selected by the Alberta government to submit proposals for carbon capture and storage projects, eight major oil sand firms (including Suncor and ConocoPhillips) chose not to participate for largely economic reasons. With the exception of upgraders most oil sands emissions are too impure or dispersed for this technology. A study on unconventional or highly carbon-rich fuels by the Rand Corporation concluded that even if CCS could be applied to the oil sands, it would “still leave unaddressed the CO2 emissions from final combustion of the fuels.” In other words unconventional fossil fuels “do not, in themselves, offer a path to greatly reduced carbon dioxide emissions.”

    The Bottom Line: Given the paucity of groundwater information in Canada and lack of national water standards, the push to accelerate CCS could pose real risks to our groundwater resources. In sum, the marriage of a brave new technology with a political fix for an immediate climate problem could have negative long-term consequences for Canadian taxpayers and water drinkers without stabilizing the climate. To move forward on the sequestration of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in underground saline aquifers without strong regulations, clear liability, effective oversight, sound science and a transparent decision-making process would be sheer folly.

  15. While the underground storage of CO2 is comparatively rare, there is a long history of storing natural gas (CH4) underground: building up reserves during winter months and drawing them down in the summer.

    About 86% of the natural gas storage capacity in the United States is in depleted reservoirs. 10% is in aquifers, which have a higher leakage rate (problematic since CH4 is a powerful greenhouse gas). Also, natural gas stored in this way needs to have the water removed before use. 4% of the gas is stored in salt caverns.

    At the winter low, total capacity stored is about 7.5 trillion cubic feet; at the winter low, it is around 5.0 trillion cubic feet.

    Storing CH4 may be easier than storing CO2, since CO2 easily forms acid in the presence of water. Still, examining the record of natural gas storage facilities could shed some light on the costs and risks associated with carbon capture and storage.

  16. Mont Belvieu, Texas
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The Warren Petroleum Company built an underground salt dome storage terminal in 1955. This facility is the largest of its type for natural gas liquids in North America. With 26 underground caverns, it has a total storage capacity of forty-three million barrels of propane, butane, ethane, natural gas and other products.

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