Capturing Conversation

Press finally digs into CCS both nationally and locally

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency formally announced that heat-trapping greenhouse gases are a danger to human health and welfare, a move that could lead to the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, power plants, and other industrial sources.

The determination—which will undergo a sixty-day comment period before any details or specific actions are decided—drew coverage from all the major outlets. A cap-and-trade bill introduced in March in the House of Representatives, likewise designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, has also received a lot of press attention over the last few weeks. The Obama administration still prefers legislation to regulation—but regardless of which path is chosen, the United States would have to undergo a profound technological transformation, energy-wise, to meet its de-carbonization targets.

It has been reassuring, then, to read numerous articles, both national and regional, over the last month about our technology options, weighing those we have against those we need and discussing the political and economic feasibility of each. To wit, the media conversation about one of the most controversial options, carbon capture and storage (CCS), has finally turned into a meaningful debate.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a column arguing that journalists were neglecting the CCS story. It had been three months since the Bush administration’s Department of Energy cancelled the FutureGen project—a plan to build the U.S.’s first “near-zero-emissions,” coal-fired power plant—and news about CCS had almost vanished from the news. About a month after my column, The New York Times ran an article whose headline summed up the problem: “Mounting Costs Slow the Push for Clean Coal.” (I’ll ignore, for a moment, the use of that oxymoronic slogan about cleanliness, which should be expunged from journalists’ vocabularies.)

The press’s disinterest in CCS continued into the fall, despite the fact that both Barack Obama and John McCain had, on the campaign trail, repeatedly promised Americans that it would play a significant role in the future energy economy. The fact that Australia, Germany, and other foreign nations were opening test plants didn’t seem to matter either.

When coal-ash ponds in Tennessee and Alabama burst in December and January, flooding hundreds of surrounding acres with toxic sludge, the press leapt into action. Widespread articles, editorials, and commentaries made what seemed like a concerted effort to once and for all denounce the idea that coal could ever be “clean.” It was, without a doubt, a noble and much needed effort. But, as CJR argued at the time, very few reporters bothered to explain that the term “clean coal” was coined to describe carbon capture technology and not the heavy metals in coal ash, effectively postponing, once again, a more complete discussion of whether or not CCS should be a part of the so-called energy revolution.

Then came the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and, in a span of ten months, the New York Times headline changed from “Mounting Costs Slow the Push for Clean Coal” to “Stimulus Money Puts Clean Coal Projects on a Faster Track.” The Obama administration’s package allotted $3.4 billion to developing CCS, making it one of the key elements in the roughly $70 billion earmarked for energy overall. Though it was already ex post facto, the press was once again interested in covering the debate about whether or not the investment was a good idea.

A few weeks after Obama signed the stimulus bill a headline at Scientific American’s 60-Second Science blog laid out the quandary: “Carbon capture and storage: Absolute necessity or crazy scheme?” Environmentalists who otherwise agree on the urgent need to address global warming are divided over that question, which is what makes CCS such a sticky issue. The rest of the Scientific American post, by David Biello, described two events in New York City which occurred at roughly the same time. At one, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was talking about CCS’s important role in mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions; at the other, the Sierra Club was calling it a lifeline for a toxic, outdated fuel source.

The NRDC epitomizes the position that CCS is necessary because, like it or not, the U.S.—and even more importantly, China and India—will continue to burn large amounts of coal for decades to come. The Sierra Club, on the other hand, represents the opinion that any dollar spent on CCS, or anything to do with coal (the mining of which will always be destructive, and which will always produce ash in burning), is a dollar wasted, which could have gone to clean technologies like wind and solar. There is also the argument that, global warming aside, CCS is neither financially nor technologically feasible.

The International Energy Agency calls (pdf) CCS “essential to the achievement of deep emission cuts estimates,” and estimates that at least twenty “full-scale” CCS projects need to be underway by 2010 for the technology to take flight. Some think it’s a flight of fancy.

A recent article in The Economist wisely pointed out that, “CCS features prominently in all the main blueprints for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions” at a reasonable cost. But “the world’s leaders are counting on a fix for climate change that is at best uncertain and at worst unworkable,” the magazine went on to argue. “In a purely technical sense, CCS looks promising … The problem with CCS is the cost.”

Utilities, the magazine reasoned, are simply not ready to invest in such an expensive technology. But a lot changed in the weeks after its article appeared. Just five days later, The New York Times and The Washington Post covered Congressional and General Accountability Office reports which had found, respectively, that the cancelling FutureGen had set back CCS development by a decade, and that the Department of Energy’s decision to do so was based on a grossly overestimated the cost projection.

Then came the New York Times article with the headline about stimulus money putting CCS projects on a “faster track.” In it, reporter Matthew Wald described a number of projects scattered throughout the U.S. where utilities such as Duke Energy and American Electric Power are investing in CCS. The investments and the scale of the projects themselves are still much smaller than what the International Energy Agency would like to see, however.

There are also mixed feelings among the venture capital community. In the The Wall Street Journal’s annual “Eco:nomics” special report (an excellent read all around), one Silicon Valley executive told reporter Alan Murray that his firm is backing CCS as one option among many. But the vaunted clean-energy investor Vinod Khosla demurred, saying that, “Today, presuming I didn’t care one bit about the environment, investments that are carbon-heavy are poor economic-risk-adjusted bets.” Even optimistic experts seem to agree that it will take at least fifteen years for CCS to mature.

Indeed, there is not a single large power plant using CCS today—just a handful of small demonstration plants using a variety of capture and/or storage techniques. In early April, Scientific American’s Biello penned a useful five-part series that explained the various capture, transportation, and storage options for carbon dioxide, as well as the various existing projects and those that are on the way. One of the report’s more interesting revelations is that, so far, carbon dioxide injected underground has stayed put. Leakage is a major concern among detractors, but the packages includes an intriguing slideshow with a graphic of carbon dioxide’s stable accumulation in Norway’s thirteen-year-old Sleipner gas field, the world’s oldest CCS project.

Biello came to the same conclusion as The Economist, reporting that “the primary problem” with carbon capture and storage projects is cost. Of course, cost is intimately tied to the technology itself; while most of the elements for CCS already exist, they undoubtedly need to be refined and expanded to operate at a much larger scale in order to be effective (if that is even possible).

M.I.T. engineer Howard Herzog told Biello that most of the cost comes in the capture stage (which can involve pre- or post-combustion processes, or something called oxyfuel combustion). But there is some disagreement about that. For instance, the vice president for R&D at Vattenfall, one of the leading investors in CCS, recently told the International Herald Tribune that, “If the timetable for 2015 is not held, it is probably not due to the capture plant but problems with permission for storage and pipeline transport.” Others think that permission isn’t even the issue, but rather the sheer scale of infrastructure required. Last year, for example, the New York Times’s Andrew Revkin cited calculations by Vaclav Smil at the University of Manitoba, who “estimated that capturing and burying just ten percent of the carbon dioxide emitted over a year from coal-fire plants at current rates would require moving volumes of compressed carbon dioxide greater than the total annual flow of oil worldwide.”

Of course, none of these concerns have stopped governments and companies around the world from moving forward with CCS. In the last month, the press has covered a controversial CCS bill in Montana, which died in the state legislature because of confusion about the ownership of underground storage space; agriculture giant Archer Daniel Midland’s quest to bury carbon dioxide in Illinois; a New York startup’s novel proposal to store the gas underneath the ocean floor; and new CCS projects underway in France and China.

Clearly, then, journalists are a step behind if their goal is to help the public decide whether or not it supports CCS. The recent wave of coverage is better late than never, though. On Monday, Greenwire (via the New York Times) and The Center for Public Integrity published excellent reports about the monumental advertising and lobbying “blitz” surrounding the future of coal. With EPA’s endangerment finding last Friday and Congress debating a cap-and-trade emissions reduction scheme this week, the stakes are high and CCS is not a topic that is going away.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.