The Dirt on 'Clean Coal'

HENDRIK VAN DEN BERG 
UNL PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS

Both the Bush/Cheney and Obama Adminstrations and the Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress have openly supported the concept of ‘clean coal’—or what is more precisely called carbon capture and storage (CCS). Billions of government dollars have already been allocated to funding test projects that will serve to develop new technologies that (1) remove carbon from the emissions of coal-fired power plants, plants that convert coal to synthetic oil, and other industrial plants that use coal as an energy source; and (2) store the carbon permanently underground. 

These technologies will, according to the coal lobby, make our most abundant carbon fuel ‘clean.’ CCS technologies thus simultaneously reduce global warming and our dependence on foreign oil. The coal lobby then continues to argue that, even though these new technologies are not yet available, spending taxpayer money on test projects and other types of CCS research justifies the construction of more familiar coal-fired power plants instead of more expensive alternative wind, solar or conservation projects because these coal-fired plants can be ‘cleaned up’ in a few years ‘when the technology becomes available.’

 
Unfortunately, there is no evidence suggesting we are close to developing financially or technically viable CCS technologies. In fact, CCS may not work at all, ever. There is not one big power plant using CCS technology operating anywhere in the world (although some small ones are being built in Europe). No U.S. utilities are currently planning to build any CCS plants, because they are likely to cost much more than conventional power plants. CCS requires extra facilities to separate carbon from other emissions, the carbon in turn must be pipelined to underground formations appropriate for its storage, and then the carbon must be pressurized and forced into the formations. All of these steps require energy and more equipment. Estimates suggest CCS power plants will use at least 25 percent of the electric energy they produce to process the carbon, which means the basic plants will have to be one-third larger and use one-third more coal than conventional plants to produce the same amount of electricity for end users.  
Estimates of the cost of CCS by various agencies and research groups, such as the International Energy Agency and the private consultancy McKinsey and Associates, predict CCS costs will exceed $40 per ton of carbon captured, which is much higher than current prices of carbon in Europe’s ‘cap and trade’ system or the level of carbon taxes being contemplated almost anywhere. CCS is, therefore, more expensive than other carbon reduction methods currently being applied. In 2008, the Bush/Cheney Administration canceled the $2 billion project underway in Illinois when costs reached $1.8 billion and the power plant was nowhere near completion. Statoil, the Norwegian oil company currently operating a huge test project to store carbon from burning gases that are emitted during the extraction of crude oil from its North Sea oil drilling sites, says that even with the Norwegian carbon tax of $60 per ton, the project does not make financial sense. 
Some proponents argue that the costs of CCS will fall over time. However, the prospects for reducing CCS costs are not promising, because there may not be many efficiencies to be gained from the technologies of separating carbon from other emissions, operating pipelines, and injecting substances into ground. These are all technologies closely related to familiar oil industry practices. As The Economist stated in a March 6, 2009 article on carbon capture technology, “the scope for improvement is slender.” 
Will the Carbon Stay Underground? 
An even greater concern, however, is whether carbon injected into the ground under great pressure will stay there. Carbon emissions are not reduced in the long run if the stored carbon eventually escapes into the air. For example, a rate of seepage equal to just one percent of stored carbon per year means that nearly two-thirds of all stored carbon would enter the atmosphere within a century. 
The huge underground carbon stores also represent potential human catastrophes. CO2 gas is deadly and a sudden release near a populated area could kill an entire community in minutes. It is difficult to envision local or state governments approving large storage projects. Each project would be held up for years,  if not stopped outright. 
Clean coal advocates, of course, point to the oil industry’s experience with injecting carbon into underground reservoirs to pressure more oil to the surface. Exxon-Mobil operates a large carbon injection facility in La Barge, Wyoming, and carbon is piped in through some 3,000 miles of pipelines from various power plants and natural gas processing sites in the upper Plains states. But Exxon-Mobil has not monitored its Wyoming site for carbon seepage, since it is only interested in using the carbon to force more oil out of its underground reserves. 
Statoil’s Sleipner Project in the North Sea, one of just four large-scale carbon dioxide storage projects in the world today, did monitor carbon movements underground, and the data is not reassuring. Sleipner is on the Utsira formation under the North Sea, which was touted back in the 1980s as large enough to store all emissions from Europe’s coal power plants for centuries. The Sleipner Project has since changed that assessment. Norway’s Petroleum Directorate, according to Greenpeace, has downgraded the Utsira site to “not very suitable” for carbon storage, in large part because monitors have revealed that injected carbon gasses have flowed upward towards the top of the formation more quickly than expected. While some upward movement was expected, not the more than 100 meters per year that has been recorded since the project’s inception. Even at the Tordis injection site on the Utsira formation (which is just a standard oil recovery project using injection methods to force oil to the surface—not a CCS project)—the touted formation failed to hold the pressurized carbon injected into it. 
Get Ready for the Public Relations Onslaught 
Unfortunately, the facts will not determine the future of coal. President Obama has supported ‘clean coal’ since he was an Illinois senator, and now his undermining of the United Nations process at Copenhagen has further legitimized the free-for-all approach to environmental policy that private corporations exploit so well. The coal industry, as well as the oil and gas industry, the nuclear industry, the ethanol industry, and the main users of electricity, oil and gas will, no doubt, use their economic clout to dominate the political process and public opinion. It will take a very creative and persistent effort on the part of scientists, environmentalists and activist organizations like NFP to counter the ‘clean coal’ campaign that will be thrown at us. 

Both the Bush/Cheney and Obama Adminstrations and the Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress have openly supported the concept of ‘clean coal’—or what is more precisely called carbon capture and storage (CCS). Billions of government dollars have already been allocated to funding test projects that will serve to develop new technologies that (1) remove carbon from the emissions of coal-fired power plants, plants that convert coal to synthetic oil, and other industrial plants that use coal as an energy source; and (2) store the carbon permanently underground. 

These technologies will, according to the coal lobby, make our most abundant carbon fuel ‘clean.’ CCS technologies thus simultaneously reduce global warming and our dependence on foreign oil. The coal lobby then continues to argue that, even though these new technologies are not yet available, spending taxpayer money on test projects and other types of CCS research justifies the construction of more familiar coal-fired power plants instead of more expensive alternative wind, solar or conservation projects because these coal-fired plants can be ‘cleaned up’ in a few years ‘when the technology becomes available.’ 

Unfortunately, there is no evidence suggesting we are close to developing financially or technically viable CCS technologies. In fact, CCS may not work at all, ever. There is not one big power plant using CCS technology operating anywhere in the world (although some small ones are being built in Europe). No U.S. utilities are currently planning to build any CCS plants, because they are likely to cost much more than conventional power plants. CCS requires extra facilities to separate carbon from other emissions, the carbon in turn must be pipelined to underground formations appropriate for its storage, and then the carbon must be pressurized and forced into the formations. All of these steps require energy and more equipment. Estimates suggest CCS power plants will use at least 25 percent of the electric energy they produce to process the carbon, which means the basic plants will have to be one-third larger and use one-third more coal than conventional plants to produce the same amount of electricity for end users.  

Estimates of the cost of CCS by various agencies and research groups, such as the International Energy Agency and the private consultancy McKinsey and Associates, predict CCS costs will exceed $40 per ton of carbon captured, which is much higher than current prices of carbon in Europe’s ‘cap and trade’ system or the level of carbon taxes being contemplated almost anywhere. CCS is, therefore, more expensive than other carbon reduction methods currently being applied. In 2008, the Bush/Cheney Administration canceled the $2 billion project underway in Illinois when costs reached $1.8 billion and the power plant was nowhere near completion. Statoil, the Norwegian oil company currently operating a huge test project to store carbon from burning gases that are emitted during the extraction of crude oil from its North Sea oil drilling sites, says that even with the Norwegian carbon tax of $60 per ton, the project does not make financial sense. 

Some proponents argue that the costs of CCS will fall over time. However, the prospects for reducing CCS costs are not promising, because there may not be many efficiencies to be gained from the technologies of separating carbon from other emissions, operating pipelines, and injecting substances into ground. These are all technologies closely related to familiar oil industry practices. As The Economist stated in a March 6, 2009 article on carbon capture technology, “the scope for improvement is slender.” 

Will the Carbon Stay Underground? 

An even greater concern, however, is whether carbon injected into the ground under great pressure will stay there. Carbon emissions are not reduced in the long run if the stored carbon eventually escapes into the air. For example, a rate of seepage equal to just one percent of stored carbon per year means that nearly two-thirds of all stored carbon would enter the atmosphere within a century. 

The huge underground carbon stores also represent potential human catastrophes. CO2 gas is deadly and a sudden release near a populated area could kill an entire community in minutes. It is difficult to envision local or state governments approving large storage projects. Each project would be held up for years,  if not stopped outright. 

Clean coal advocates, of course, point to the oil industry’s experience with injecting carbon into underground reservoirs to pressure more oil to the surface. Exxon-Mobil operates a large carbon injection facility in La Barge, Wyoming, and carbon is piped in through some 3,000 miles of pipelines from various power plants and natural gas processing sites in the upper Plains states. But Exxon-Mobil has not monitored its Wyoming site for carbon seepage, since it is only interested in using the carbon to force more oil out of its underground reserves. 

Statoil’s Sleipner Project in the North Sea, one of just four large-scale carbon dioxide storage projects in the world today, did monitor carbon movements underground, and the data is not reassuring. Sleipner is on the Utsira formation under the North Sea, which was touted back in the 1980s as large enough to store all emissions from Europe’s coal power plants for centuries. The Sleipner Project has since changed that assessment. Norway’s Petroleum Directorate, according to Greenpeace, has downgraded the Utsira site to “not very suitable” for carbon storage, in large part because monitors have revealed that injected carbon gasses have flowed upward towards the top of the formation more quickly than expected. While some upward movement was expected, not the more than 100 meters per year that has been recorded since the project’s inception. Even at the Tordis injection site on the Utsira formation (which is just a standard oil recovery project using injection methods to force oil to the surface—not a CCS project)—the touted formation failed to hold the pressurized carbon injected into it. 

Get Ready for the Public Relations Onslaught 

Unfortunately, the facts will not determine the future of coal. President Obama has supported ‘clean coal’ since he was an Illinois senator, and now his undermining of the United Nations process at Copenhagen has further legitimized the free-for-all approach to environmental policy that private corporations exploit so well. The coal industry, as well as the oil and gas industry, the nuclear industry, the ethanol industry, and the main users of electricity, oil and gas will, no doubt, use their economic clout to dominate the political process and public opinion. It will take a very creative and persistent effort on the part of scientists, environmentalists and activist organizations like NFP to counter the ‘clean coal’ campaign that will be thrown at us.

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