Monday, January 07, 2008

CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) and Peak Oil

One cannot realistically study the issue of peak oil without also dealing with the question of peaking of other fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal. The peaking and/or depletion of one will seriously affect the others as they are leaned on as substitutes. But one also cannot deal with the issue of peak oil, peak energy and fossil fuel usage in general without also fully understanding and taking into account the other serious and highly related issue on the global horizon; global warming and climate change. It is, in fact, our past tendencies to focus on energy without consideration of environmental implications that have led us to this point in human history where both are simultaneously manifesting themselves as serious global problems.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2), the primary Greenhouse Gas (by volume) that causes global warming, is the chief bi-product from the burning of fossil fuels. But it is, by no means, the only source of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Nor is it, by itself, a pollutant. Global warming is caused not by the simple presence of CO2 in the atmosphere but by the level of concentration of CO2. The greater the volume of CO2 present the greater the impact on raising earth's temperature. In fact a certain level of CO2 in the atmosphere is required to maintain earth's temperature in a range suitable for the support of life. Without our atmosphere and the heat-trapping effects of atmospheric CO2 earth would be a cold, inhospitable planet incapable of supporting life, just as Mars appears to be today. So although the current upsurge in global warming is partly caused by man and his burning of fossil fuels, the aim in addressing and correcting this is not to eliminate CO2 from the atmosphere but to bring the levels of atmospheric CO2 back to where they naturally should be and maintain them in the range required by life on earth.

Our abuses of our planet and its environment and atmosphere have left us with little option but to maintain our assumed role of custodian. We can not endanger that environment and the lifeforms of this planet that depend on it, as we have already done, and stand back and expect the environment to correct itself. This planet's natural checks and balances have evolved, just like living organisms do, over long, slow geological time. Man is an aggressive, abusive, gregarious species that changes the environment not in slow geologic time but in the rapid-fire, staccato pace of our technological innovation and development. Nature simply has no way to keep up with the pace we have set. Like the tortoise, it will win in the end. But that end is a long way off and calamitous changes lie between now and that finish line.

The simple truth is we must stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere at the levels we have since the onset of the industrial revolution some two hundred and fifty years ago. Since the greatest volumes of those anthropogenic CO2 gases derive from our burning of fossil fuels it is in that area that we must make changes. But that presents us with a huge problem. Our human society is founded on the burning of fossil fuels. The global economy is driven by fossil fuels. Without them that global economy and global human society, as they are currently constituted, would simply fall apart. Despite the belief by purists, which I am often accused of being, that that is exactly what should happen, the simple reality is it will not. There is simply too much at stake for our leaders to allow the system to fail by pulling the plug.

What, then, are the alternatives? How do we carry on our society as it is and still reduce the amount of CO2 we are releasing into the atmosphere? Most of those in power and the cornucopian advisers, economists and technocrats to whom they listen, seem intent on putting their eggs in the CCS basket (Carbon Capture and Sequestration). For those unfamiliar with CCS, it "refers to the provision of long-term storage of carbon in the terrestrial biosphere, underground, or the oceans so that the buildup of carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) concentration in the atmosphere will reduce or slow."[3] The most frequently discussed and proposed method is the injection of CO2 extracted from concentrated exhaust from things like power plants into old abandoned oil wells, gas wells, mines and similar structures. Other proposals, looking for an economic return from the sequestration, involve increasing the injection of CO2 into active oil wells, for example, to increase well head pressure and improve oil extraction.

Carbon sequestration, after all, is quite simple. Nature does it all the time. Plants breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen, "sequestering" the carbon by using it in building new plant matter. The oceans act as a natural carbon sink by absorbing huge volumes of CO2 into seawater. But why leave it to nature to do for free when we can develop and use expensive new technology to do it ourselves? After all, the more money we put into that technology the more it beefs up the GDP and benefits the economy. As long as human society is driven by money and economics that is the point of view that will prevail. But hugely expensive carbon capture programs get quietly cancelled, stalled or put on the back burner [1, 8, 9, 10, 17, 19] just as quickly as they get loudly announced and proclaimed [4, 7, 8, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18]. In some cases the cancellation of a program happens just a few short weeks after it was announced, most often without any carbon having been sequestered at all.

A far more serious and potent greenhouse gas than CO2 is Methane, which is about twenty times as powerful as a greenhouse gas. Methane, like CO2, naturally occurs in the biosphere and the levels at which it normally occurs are not a problem. In fact, like CO2, atmospheric Methane is an important part of maintaining earth's temperature in the range required by living organisms. But human activities have dramatically increased the concentration of Methane in the earth's atmosphere and threaten to seriously and dangerously increase that concentration. Vast amounts of Methane have been sequestered by nature in swamps, in Arctic permafrost and, most importantly, as Methane Hydrates trapped in sediment at the bottom of the oceans and seas and in Arctic permafrost.

Getting those who are responsible for national energy needs to think of both energy production and climate change at the same time, however, seems to have great potential for creating problems as big as it solves. Methane you see, unlike CO2, can be used as a fuel (technically it is natural gas) and, therefore, is being looked at extensively, particularly Methane Hydrates, as a possible alternative in the face of declining fossil fuel reserves. There is several times as much usable Methane in the world, most in the form of Methane Hydrates, than all of the fossil fuels combined. The world's two most populous countries with a combined population of nearly three billion, India and China, seem intent on not waiting that long to capitalize on this energy source. They are looking seriously at using vast reserves of Methane Hydrates off their coasts as an alternative now as a "solution" to their high volume of CO2 generation from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels[20]. This makes as much sense as heating your house by burning the lumber with which it was built. Methane Hydrates are very unstable constructs that are quickly dissipated into the atmosphere at normal air temperature and pressure (see my December 2006 article "Methane hydrates: the next great energy source?" in my blog at http://oilbeseeingyou.blogspot.com/2006/12/methane-hydrates-next-great-energy.html ). Accidentally releasing into the atmosphere during extraction an amount of Methane more than five percent the volume of the CO2 they are currently generating will, in fact, result in a greater impact on global warming than their current CO2 releases.

Governments the world over, including the U.S. federal government, are making serious research money available for research, testing and development of serious carbon sequestration projects. And as is always the case when a handful of government money is thrown into the trough, organizations are lining up to get at it. But it seems they are all doing so with the hope and assumption that they can make money out of it beyond taxpayer money to fund the research. The only viable CCS projects seem to be those involving high-volume sources lik3e power plants and geosequestration into old wells and mines. The hard reality is, and often the reason that projects so enthusiastically announced are so quietly and quickly cancelled, is that the high volume sources and the geological formations into which the CO2 can be sequestered often do not occur in the same location. To have to move the CO2, in either gaseous or liquid form, over long distances by pipeline in order to sequester it becomes prohibitively expensive.

Most serious projects that have not yet been cancelled are looking at projected dates at least one to two decades out before completion of a fully functional CCS infrastructure. By that time oil and other fossil fuels will be into serious decline and the generation of anthropogenic CO2 may well be in decline by that time simply because there is not enough fuel left to burn to keep it on the increase. That will not, of course, solve the global warming problem as the impact on global warming from the CO2 already in the atmosphere will still take decades to reach its maximum. CCS still has the potential, therefore, to be one of the biggest White Elephants our technological society has yet produced. Or is that White Elephant grey from industrial pollution?
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Sources and further reading;
1) Oil giants abandon plans for ‘uneconomic’ green power plant
2) Geologic Sequestration Research
3) Carbon Sequestration
4) Scientists deepen confidence in technique to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
5) Carbon capture and storage
6) Carbon Capture and Storage
7) Piping carbon back into the ground
8) Norway sticks with CCS gas power plant plan -PM
9) What Future for Carbon Capture and Sequestration?
10) A cautionary tale of carbon capture
11) Carbon Capture Research
12) Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage
13) Carbon capture and sequestration project set for large-scale test
14) Carbon Capture Moves Ahead
15) Million Tons of CO2 Will Be Injected Under Illinois
16) Gov Blagojevich Invites President to Visit Mattoon, Site of FutureGen Project - December 21
17) Futuregen's Plan to Bring CCS to Illinois in Trouble?
18) Navajo Times: "Desert Rock a needed project for Navajo Nation" (Dec 22 2007)
19) Energy Northwest ditches project to bury emissions
20) China and India Exploit Icy Energy Reserves

3 comments:

AVE_fan said...

Richard,

I agree with you that we've got to stop filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Yet it's not just North Americans, it's the rest of the world, including the fastest growing polluters, China and India.

My question is, given the existence of a technology developed in you own country and indeed your own province, which can provide the solutions that are needed, the "Atmospheric Vortex Engine" (see www.vortexengine.ca), why isn't more discussion of its potential carried out ROECA or on this blog? I have endorsed it recently at scitizen.com as well as at the website, and have commenting many times on published articles as AVE_fan or HvyOilGuy, so I won't discuss its merits here.

Why is it being given the "cold shoulder" by the very people who should be its strongest supporters?

Richard Embleton said...

I can only speak for myself. If you have been following my blog you know that I am not a believer in new technological solutions to work our way out of our technologically-induced problems. The AVE, IF (big if) it ever proves viable and scaleable, is too little too late and only capable of satisfying a small portion of the energy demand. That is my general view of such technological saviours. In the specific, I have some serious misgivings about the safety of such technology, particularly the arrogant belief that we can control the vortex on which it relies. You are talking about a man-made tornado generatd in but not contained within a man-made structure, a tornado intended to continually swirl above the cylindrical containment that generates it. You use the term "anchored", a term I strongly reject in this context. How do you "anchor" the wind?
Sorry, you are looking for the wrong person to get on this band wagon. See my article in the blog "Don't Tell Me Technology Will Save Us, Please....." for more of my take on technological saviours.

Anonymous said...

and i was like yea whatever..:P
but yea what he said...