The Island of Doubt

The arguments against carbon capture and sequestration are legion and the list of reasons not to invest more resources in the technology just keeps getting longer. Here’s a new analysis from Canadian journalist Graham Thomson. Some of his figures– on global carbon emissions, for example — are less than accurate, and this isn’t peer-reviewed science, just a journalist’s compendium commissioned by the Munk Centre for International Studies University of Toronto. But even allowing for that, Thompson manages to hit the proverbial nail on the head:

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.”

That former nuclear expert is actually a trio, Daniel Spreng, Gregg Marland, Alvin M. Weinberg, writing two years ago in Energy Policy on the “Faustian Bargain” that CCS offers, and their paper deserves a lengthier excerpt.

The temptation that CCS offers is the extension of the fossil-fuel era by perhaps a few 100 years. It is a technology designed to limit emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere, but it extends the period during which CO2 is emitted. It is a double-edged sword. Research on CCS and talk about the promise of a technology that can fix the CO2 problem can easily delay more durable measures (Hawkins, 2003). CCS may be, politically, an easy way out of having to make more difficult and sustainable choices. It could divert resources from the search for increases in energy efficiency or investment in non-fossil energy sources. CCS could provide temporary relief, but it may also make the whole of humankind more dependent on fossil fuels, and thus make a change-over later more difficult. Mitigation technologies can be pursued in parallel, and Faust’s original bargain was to continue the striving. The short-term interest of the fossil-fuel industry is to accept the devil’s assistance and to extend the era of fossil fuels. This is not to imply that other approaches to confronting climate change are without cost or risk, it is to make clear that a Faustian Bargain comes with both commitments and an uncertain outcome.

Contrast this with Stephen Chu’s warm embrace of CCS. To be fair to Chu, as a member of the U.S. cabinet, he can’t afford to not to, given the extraordinary power that the fossil-fuel industry wields over American energy policy. The coal [power] industry, which supplies half the country’s electricity, simply isn’t going to shut their plants down unless forced to. CCS, if it actually worked, and was an economically viable option, would give coal another century of prominence. (Though probably not two or three centuries, as had previously been assumed.)

But Thomson, Spreng, Marland and Weinberg’s argument is persuasive. CCS diverts attention away from technologies that are far more likely to produce real reductions in carbon emissions at much lower costs.

Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    September 29, 2009

    A couple of a hundred years is a long time, especially as technological progress is measured. Fusion power, which has been twenty years away for the last half-century, might be only five years away in another century. Whether fusion power arrives or not, it is quite reasonable to advocate a solution that lasts for “only” a couple of centuries, allowing future generations to use technologies about which we can now only guess to solve the problems then forestalled.

  2. #2 Adam
    September 29, 2009

    Disagree completely. If nothing else, we need carbon capture to lower the already-too-high amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. And, as the above poster noted, forestalling a problem can, under the right circumstances, lead to a good solution. And finally, there’s just no way humanity isn’t going to burn through massive amounts of coal and oil in the near future (barring something unlikely-such as working and cheap cold fusion). Finding some way to deal with that fact is vitally important.

  3. #3 Rolf Andreassen
    September 29, 2009

    >The coal industry, which supplies half the country’s electricity, simply isn’t going to shut their plants down unless forced to.

    I certainly hope not! Non-essential services like, I don’t know, server farms running blogging software, would be the first to go. I assume you wrote this a bit absent-mindedly, but it really does sound as though you want half the country’s electricity to disappear in one fell swoop. Bad idea! Bad, bad!

  4. #4 David Marjanović
    September 29, 2009

    A couple of a hundred years is a long time, especially as technological progress is measured. Fusion power, which has been twenty years away for the last half-century, might be only five years away in another century.

    Congratulations. You win 1 (one) Internets.

    If nothing else, we need carbon capture to lower the already-too-high amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    How? By picking the molecules out of the air one-by-one with your fingers?

  5. #5 D. C. Sessions
    September 29, 2009

    My metric for how serious a “carbon capture” strategy is can be summed up in one question: what are the sanctions for the carbon escaping into the atmosphere?

    The last time I looked at any of the legislation being proposed, either nationally or internationally, the answer was “what sanctions?”

  6. #6 Roy R Crawford
    September 29, 2009

    You wrote “The coal industry, which supplies have the country’s electricity, simply isn’t going to shut their plants down unless forced to.”

    I assume you meant “half.” [Yes, thanks — jh.] In any case you are laboring under the gross misunderstanding that the coal industry has power plants. A few power companies may own some coal mines, but I don’t know of any of “the coal industry” having power plants. Or are you talking about their preparation plants? [Again, sloppy self-editing. It has been corrected with the insertion of the missing word – jh]

    Given the extreme unpopularity of the coal industry, I am surprised you think the problem is more “the extraordinary power that the fossil-fuel industry wields over American energy policy” rather than that there is no quick and easy replacement for the power coal provides. If coal is outlawed before alternatives are in place, there will be brownouts that will cause a tremendous backlash against those trying to protect the environment.

    Actually, I think it is extraordinary because the power is out of proportion to the number of people employed. Why should anyone who’s not employed by the coal industry actually care where their electricity comes from? Other than environmental concerns, that is. — jh

  7. #7 NoAstronomer
    September 29, 2009

    But isn’t Roy’s point that the ‘extraordinary power that the fossil-fuel industry wields over American energy policy’ is the fact if coal were outlawed tomorrow then half the country would go dark?

    At least until alternative sources are built out.

    You are right, people don’t particularly care where their energy comes from. So long as the energy is available.

    Mike.

  8. #8 D. C. Sessions
    September 29, 2009

    But isn’t Roy’s point that the ‘extraordinary power that the fossil-fuel industry wields over American energy policy’ is the fact if coal were outlawed tomorrow then half the country would go dark?

    I can’t speak for Roy on whether that was his point, but if so he’s wrong. The power of fossil fuel providers in the USA is based on the enormous volume of money that flows through their hands. In this country, “vast amounts of money” translates into “important to the country” and, generally speaking, “role model.”

    Sports, software, wars, whatever — if someone tells you that Americans love the underdog, laugh. We get off on identifying with the big dogs and their ability to slam the little ones that get in their way. The less effort involved, the better it feels.

  9. #9 travc
    September 29, 2009

    CSS is potentially a good thing, but we have to consider the opportunity costs… and especially indirect opportunity costs.

    One big indirect cost I’m concerned about is further perpetuating an electricity distribution system structured (legally and physically) around very large generation facilities. Fossil fuel plants with CSS are even more expensive and have stricter siting requirements… they will be even more centralized.

    Many alternative power generation systems work better with a much more decentralized grid. The economies of scale don’t quite work the same way (or at least to the same extent) as big traditional facilites.
    There are actually lots of benefits to decentralization… the one I get all gushy for is increasing the opportunities for entrepreneurship and technical innovation/development by having lower start-up costs and less loss associated with failure. Quite simply, it is insane to use anything but completely proven technologies if you are putting 10s or 100s of millions of dollars into building a power plant.

    CSS is an add on to the existing model, but the existing model isn’t all that good and actually stifles innovation.

  10. #10 Brian Schmidt
    September 29, 2009

    Every technological proposal including things like instream hydropower, tidal power, biomass etc. carry the risk that they won’t scale successfully and thus “divert attention” attention from the other ones. I think the lesson is to research them all.

    CCS may add as little as 30-40% to coal’s cost per kW, and coal’s pretty cheap. I think the conclusion “CCS diverts attention away from technologies that are far more likely to produce real reductions in carbon emissions at much lower costs” isn’t proven – we don’t know one way or the other yet.

    Even if CCS doesn’t work, so long as the concept is out there and untested, it will be promoted. So, let’s test it and find out if we need to discard it or not.

  11. #11 M. Simon
    September 29, 2009

    What are the sanctions for increased CO2 in the atmosphere? Cheaper food. Oh. Wait. That wasn’t what you wanted to hear. How about faster tree growth. Ooops again. How about a minor offset for the coming ice age. Durn.

    Well there must be something the war on CO2 gives us: increased power for politicians. The benefits are obvious.

    BTW I like the Polywell Fusion Reactor. There are also other options for the near term:

    http://www.ecnmag.com/article.aspx?id=183072&adcode=section=effzone

  12. #12 M. Simon
    September 29, 2009

    There is a simple, easy, and relatively painless way to displace coal. Get an electricity source that under prices it and has equivalent up time and dispatchability.

    Crickets…..

    Civilization is built on cheap power. The alternative is that uncivilization strips hillsides bare of trees. Right now (until something better comes along) it is between coal and trees. You might want to look at the ecological damage caused in Germany at the end of WW2 by the lack of coal. Ugly stuff. You really don’t want to go there.

    There really is no rush. Keep burning coal. Keep profits high. Invest some of that profit in researching new power sources. At the rate we are going we will be off fossil fuels no later than 2100. Possibly as early as 2065.

  13. #13 laolaolao
    September 30, 2009

    CCS might be a good idea in theory, but in practice it is too little too late for the environment.

    Anyway, until now it is just vaporware (or should we call it CO2ware?) whose only purpose is keeping the hot air flowing out of the politicians’ mouths. Of course since it’s such a convenient idea, the govts will spend billions – billions which could’ve been spent on renewables or nuclear – to keep the coal industry going at the expense of the very planet we’re in. Oh, just like govts spend billions to keep the fishing industry going even though now the whole industry’s worth 1/3 of the subsidies it’s being paid because it’s turned the oceans into deserts.

    Sorry! That’s just modern capitalism. You got to love it!

  14. #14 spacester
    September 30, 2009

    In my mind the real problem is that our society is dysfunctional when it comes to problem solving.

    I don’t have the answers, but I can tell when people are fruitlessly talking past each other.

    Quit trying to win the argument and start finding the solutions already!

    I am no defender of the coal industry, but the point was made that the real power stems not from the enormous financial impact, but from the plain and obvious fact that shutting down the economy is simply not an option. The money is a *manisfestation* of the *reality* that economic seppuku is not on the table.

    So how do we face reality and move forward?

    Demonizing the coal industry is as foolish as denying the fact of anthropogenic elevated greenhouse gases.

    If you need to identify villains and heroes you are stuck in a melodrama. This is the real world, how can that approach possibly work?

    The key to dealing with coal IMO is to stop building new coal plants and to shut down the worst of the existing ones. This can only be done by 1) creating additional generating capacity or 2) reducing the demand through conservation. Number 2 gets short shrift in these discussions.

    I would also point out that the article is of a cautionary nature – these guys are saying that we need to be careful we don’t fall into this trap. But folks with agendas – or just strong. well-formed opinions – take that ball and run with it, transmuting a caution into a line drawn in the sand.

  15. #15 Daryl McCullough
    October 1, 2009

    What seems likely to me, given the enormous difficulties with controlling the use of fossil fuels, is that every single drop of gasoline, every pound of coal, every liter of natural gas will be burned. It’s all going to turn into carbon dioxide. I think it is inevitable. Given that, carbon capture and sequestration is the only hope of reversing the increase in CO2.

    Why am I so pessimistic about controlling our carbon consumption? Basically because it would take unanimous agreement that it should be controlled to make a difference. If only some countries cut down their consumption of fossil fuels, that just makes those fuels cheaper and more plentiful for those who don’t cut down. In a situation in which there are costs and benefits to actions, and the costs are paid by the actors, while the benefits are gained by everyone, then there is a tremendous incentive not to pay those costs.

  16. #16 Nathan Myers
    October 1, 2009

    Daryl is right. Except! If an alternative got even a little cheaper than mining coal, people would almost immediately stop building coal-fired plants, and start figuring ways to convert the plants they have to use the alternative, and soon coal would be just too expensive to dig up and transport any more. That’s the only way to keep China from taking up all every single carbon-ton of slack we can muster.

    What this means is that we should be pouring money into driving the cost of alternatives down by every means possible. Taxing carbon doesn’t reduce total emissions (those Chinese, remember) but it creates markets that will eventually drive prices of alternatives below coal. Whoever gets there first wins.

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