We can’t rely on carbon capture and storage to make a dent in solving climate change without a carbon removal hook

On June 2nd, 2014, I was sitting in Plant Miller, Alabama, one of Southern Power Company’s coal plants, and the second largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States as one of the thirty graduate students and early career professionals who were part of the Research Experience in Carbon Sequestration (RECS). It was a special day for people who nerd out about climate change because Gina McCarthy of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was announcing a rule that would limit carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. The day was restructured so we could watch the announcement with a number of Southern employees. The basic gist of the rule, which is interpreted in the Clean Power Plan, is that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and it gives the federal government the right to regulate centralized emitters to reduce their emissions and use free market approaches to achieve 30% carbon dioxide emissions reductions in centralized sources (from 2005 levels) by 2030.

After watching the announcement there were many questions. The responses from the Southern executives were disheartening and I remember being surprised by their candor. They openly claimed that their first line of defense was to fight it in the courts and sue the EPA for overstepping its bounds. Indeed, they did this. They next said that this rule would have no effect on them building new plants that actually captured carbon dioxide and that all of the reductions could be made with efficiency gains or fuel switching. In other words, there were already things that could be done to reduce emissions, which in many cases might even reduce costs, but the Clean Power Plan was not even strong enough to compel centralized emitters to capture and put away their own emissions.

Let me be clear. I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for the many engineers who work in the power generation sector. They are tackling some of the most difficult challenges and ensuring that the consumer receives abundant and inexpensive energy. I’d also hazard a guess that for everyone reading this, we consider flicking on the light switch to be a basic human right. I find it hypocritical to point fingers at deploying fossil fuels, when it is only though the provision of this energy that we could enjoy the massive amount of wealth we do today and that’s still where we get about 85% of our global energy consumption. I also commend Southern Power Company for their forward thinking in how to deliver low-cost electricity while pursuing pilot and spending a significant portion of their budget supporting research, development and demonstration projects in the field of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) so that they can deal with the carbon externality. I even put myself in the camp of actively supporting the concept of capturing CO2 from centralized emissions when it is possible and done honestly.

But I must call bullshit on how the CCS has made claims to be the most important carbon management tool and has spent vast sums of research money (relative to other carbon management solutions) with extremely poor progress. The New York Times article “Piles of Dirty Secrets Behind a Model ‘Clean Coal’ Project” that was published on July 5th exposes the challenges of another Southern project at Kemper County Energy Facility. I visited Kemper on the RECS program. It was impressive to see 20 story tall machinery remove overburden to extract coal that is burned on site and witness the technical feasibility to capture the carbon emissions and pipe them 60 km to a residual oil zone for enhanced oil recovery. But as pointed out by the Times article, it is $4 billion over-budget and is riddled with inefficiencies. It’s time for a wake-up call, and to refocus the way we approach carbon management.

For the last three years I have been working for Klaus Lackner, a world-class physicist and one of the first people to suggest pulling CO2 from the atmosphere to balance the carbon budget. This opportunity has pushed me to think about things differently when it comes to CCS. Here are a couple of observations:

1. Because CO­­2 accumulates in the atmosphere, all the carbon dioxide that we emit from burning fossils must be put away to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change

2. That includes historic emissions that have pushed us to the climate to the limits we are experiencing today

3. That includes emissions from mobile sources like cars, ships and planes

4. Managing climate change comes down to being a waste disposal issue; only focusing on emissions reductions with the clean power plan is like rewarding someone for dumping 30% less of their garbage in the street… it still accumulates

5. Coal fired powered plants are inherently inefficient because coal is historically inexpensive, and not designed to capture their CO2

6. This means that retrofitting is extremely difficult, and it fair to assume that a power plant will continue to operate throughout its ~40-year life as it was built — that is freely dumping CO2

7. Carbon that is captured (whether from air or flue gas) can be a useful commercial feedstock for enhancing plant growth in greenhouses, creating fuels and products with algae, making liquid hydrocarbons like methanol, synthesizing chemicals, converting into to materials like plastic or graphene, carbonating beverages, or enhanced oil recovery

8. If the carbon captured is fossil based and ends up in the atmosphere after using it, that doesn’t solve the accumulation problem

9. In many cases, it will not be feasible to capture and store CO­2 at a centralized location because of storage issues, public acceptance issues or cost issues

10. If we’re serious about negative carbon emissions, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we should be, then at some point after mid-century we should be pulling back at around the rate we are emitting (36 billion tons annually)

11. Solving climate change means that freely dumping CO2 to the atmosphere must be made illegal

12. Such a paradigm would motivate all carbon neutral sources of energy

13. Mandating the removal of CO2 would also naturally motivate emissions reductions which are not happening quickly enough

14. Carbon removal solutions can separate the source from the sink — that is they can go anywhere and do not require the compliance of the emitter (this is important because it means those causing climate change are not responsible for solving it)

15. We live in world where people don’t play by the rules and it is extremely likely that the promised emissions reductions from Paris, and we will require offsets that can’t be achieved in any other way

16. The existence of affordable means to extract CO2 from the atmosphere at a scale to deal with world emissions can become the hook to enforce bad behavior when things don’t go as planned

17. We only have one planet to not mess up, and there still is a limited amount of time to clean up after ourselves, but currently we’re driving off a cliff with no breaks because of a dreadfully low public investment in any solutions that might stop or reverse it