EU-backed carbon capture and storage technology not without critics
25.01.08 @ 17:20
Within the European Commission's comprehensive package of legislative proposals on climate change and energy announced on Wednesday (23 January) is a plan to promote the development of a controversial carbon emissions mitigation technology known as "carbon capture and storage" (CCS).
CCS "captures" carbon dioxide from power plants and stores it in underground geological formations or deep oceans instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.
The climate and energy package includes a series of revised guidelines on state aid for environmental protection that will enable member state governments to support CCS demonstration plants.
"The new environmental aid guidelines strike the right balance between generous support mechanisms for well-targeted aid supporting the environment and the preservation of competition," said competition commissioner Neelie Kroes at the press conference on Wednesday announcing the "Climate Action" package.
Additionally, under the proposals, carbon dioxide captured and stored will be considered not emitted under the emissions trading system (ETS).
The revision on state aid guidelines is necessary because in the first phases of the technology's development, CCS demonstration projects will require additional finance beyond the incentives from the ETS carbon market, as the current cost of the technology is much higher than the price of carbon.
"CCS will only be deployed if the cost per tonne of CO2 avoided is lower than the carbon price," says the commission.
The commission says that while energy efficiency and an increased use of energy from renewable sources are the primary solutions in the short term, other options are needed in the longer term if Europe and the rest of the world are to achieve a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
How does it work?
At the moment, the different elements of CCS – capture, transport and storage of CO2 – have all been demonstrated, according to the commission, but bringing them all together into one integrated CCS process – and bringing down the cost of the technology – remains a challenge.
The major application for CCS is within the fossil fuel power sector, mainly coal and gas power plants, but the technology can also be applied to a range of carbon-emissions-heavy industries such as iron and steel, petrochemicals, refineries and cement production. Cement, for example, is one of the biggest carbon-polluting industries, with every tonne of cement emitting roughly a tonne of carbon in the production process.
There are three main forms of CCS: post-combustion, pre-combustion, and oxyfuel combustion.
With post-combustion, CO2 is removed after the combustion of a fossil fuel, most commonly directly from the flues at a power plant. Post-combustion CCS at a coal-fired power plant is what people mean when they use the term "clean coal".
For pre-combustion, a method used in fertiliser and chemical production, the carbon is removed before the combustion takes place. Oxyfuel combustion burns the fuel in oxygen instead of air.
The biggest carbon storage initiatives currently under development by European firms are the Sleipner project in the North Sea, coordinated by Norwegian petroleum company Statoil, and the Salah project in Algeria, a joint venture of Statoil, BP and Sonatrach. Both involve stripping carbon from natural gas and then storing it underground.
\"Classic end-of-pipe solution\"
However, the technology is not without its critics. The iron and steel industry is very sceptical of the EU's schedule for its development.
"CCS or hydrogen technologies won't be commercially viable before 2020 at the earliest," says Axel Eggert, spokesperson for Eurofer – the European Confederation of Iron and Steel Industries.
The International Energy Agency goes still further. In a 2004 report, the IEA said that as an emissions mitigation tool, CCS only had commercial potential from 2030 in developed countries.
Environmental groups as well think that the technology is unproven and puts hope in a solution that may or may not be realized in time to address carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector.
But fundamentally, environmentalists worry that ideas such as "clean coal" let us think that we can continue to use fossil fuels guilt-free.
"Ultimately, CCS still promotes a fossil-fuel economy," says Rebecca Harms, the vice-chair of the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament, who, along with Greenpeace, are strongly opposed to the use of any state funds to support CCS at the expense of the promotion of renewable energy and energy efficiency.
"We can't be giving public money to oil and coal companies to help them use more oil and coal."
The CCS process itself is also very energy intensive and requires the extra extraction of fossil fuels, with all the negative environmental and social impact that this entails - including emissions of CO2 in the extraction and transportation stages.
Critics of the technology also say that there is a great worry about leakage of CO2 from underground sites. But the commission says the risk of leakage depends very much on the site in question.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well dismisses the idea that there is a danger of leakage, saying that after 1000 years, the rate of leakage from appropriately selected and managed geological reservoirs is likely to be only one percent.
Mahi Sideridou, Greenpeace European Unit's climate and energy policy director, however, is not convinced. She says that the slow, long-term leakage from underground sites through faults or the sudden, large-scale leakage and the escape of CO2 into shallow groundwater are indeed potential problems.
She also warns that CCS could result in the displacement of deep brine and the mobilisation of toxic metals and organics that may produce the contamination of overlying sediments and marine waters or of potable water.
"Ultimately, it is a classic 'end-of-pipe' solution that involves storing the waste rather than eliminating it," says Sonja Meister, Friends of the Earth Europe's climate and energy campaigner.