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Andrew Topf

Andrew Topf

With over a decade of journalistic experience working in newspapers, trade publications and as a mining reporter, Andrew Topf is a seasoned business writer. Andrew also…

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The $17.6 Trillion Solution To Climate Change

The $17.6 Trillion Solution To Climate Change

This week, the world's leaders are gathering in Lima, Peru for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, where they hope to put together a plan for cutting global emissions that will slow the inexorable warming of the planet.

The convention follows a deal reached last month by the United States and China - the globe's top two polluters - to cut their emissions. For China, this means capping its emissions at whatever rate they hit in 2030, while the U.S. pledges to reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent of its 2005 levels by 2025.

Before we all stifle a yawn at the prospect of reading yet another treatise on the unlikelihood of the world actually agreeing to anything beyond a set of useless platitudes, know that there is another way of going about the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere, and that is carbon capture and storage.

Related: China’s Emissions Could Negate Global Efforts Against Climate Change

CCS, as it's known in the industry, involves sequestering waste carbon dioxide from oil and gas or coal mining operations, pipelining it to a storage facility, and then injecting the CO2 underground in order to prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere.

U.S. oil companies have known about the technology since the 1970s, but it has taken four decades for a commercially-viable “clean coal” project to get out the gate. The launch of that project occurred in the first week of October in Saskatchewan, Canada, with the opening of the Boundary Dam carbon capture and storage facility.

Sited in the small town of Estevan, Sask, and run by SaskPower, the plant is the world's first large-scale clean-coal power plant. CO2 generated by burning coal from a 50-year-old coal power plant is moved by pipeline to nearby oil fields, where it will be used for enhanced oil recovery operations.

The facility which cost $1.4 billion is proof that the dream of “clean coal” and “carbon sequestration” isn't dead, although it certainly seemed that way for a while.

Seen as a viable solution to rising greenhouse gases that would both cut carbon and avoid the business-unfriendly alternative of reducing output from fossil-fuel operations, a few years ago Western governments went all-in to support CCS.

Germany, a major coal consumer, introduced legislation that would transfer liability from companies to the state, for firms that injected CO2 underground. But the law failed to pass due to public concerns over possible leaks.

Norwegian company Statoil ASA has a technology that separates CO2 from natural gas at three processing sites in Norway and Algeria, before storing it underground in oil and gas reservoirs. But the company says the process is too expensive to run without government subsidies.

In 2011, the United States invested $1 billion into energy company FutureGen Alliance to create a clean-coal facility that used CCS. Four years ago Southern Co started building a large-scale CCS plant that would generate 582 megawatts from lignite coal, but cost estimates have since tripled and the project is now in jeopardy, according to a report by Bloomberg.

In Canada, the Alberta government set aside $2 billion for four carbon capture and storage projects that would help reduce greenhouse gases from oil sands, but the present government views the cost to bury carbon as too high. Current Alberta Premier Jim Prentice calls CCS “a science experiment.” It's quite likely the Boundary Dam project would have never seen the light of day had it not been for a $240-million government subsidy.

Related: BHP And Rio Tinto Call For International Carbon Price

A back of the napkin calculation shows Prentice and other CCS critics are right to be skeptical. The Bloomberg piece calculates the cost of fitting all the world's power stations with carbon-capture technology at about $17.6 trillion.

But that doesn't mean we should give up on the technology. The International Energy Agency views CCS as a central pillar in efforts to arrest climate change, stating on October 1 that it believes carbon-capture will account for a sixth of required emissions reductions by 2050. Without it, the IEA says over two-thirds of proven fossil-fuel reserves can't be commercialized before 2050 if global temperatures are allowed to rise less than two degrees.

Will CCS save the world from catastrophic climate change? Probably not. But at least it's better than leaving it to dithering politicians to do something constructive. A post in Monday's Business Insider gives a sobering picture of the recent U.S.-China climate deal. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns the only way to stay within that two-degree limit is for the world to become carbon-neutral by 2100. That means major carbon emitters like China, the U.S., India, Russia and the EU will all have to keep cutting their emissions throughout the next several decades. That seems unlikely. “Experts are increasingly pessimistic that the two-degree goal is still attainable,” BI concludes.

By Andrew Topf of Oilprice.com

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  • DR Jaques on December 11 2014 said:
    CO2 capture and storage uses much energy to pump this essential-to-life gas back into the ground! CO2 at a concentration of only 400ppmv (as it presently stands at Mauna Loa, Hawaii) is much too low to maximize plant growth on earth. Also, it appears that CO2 does not control our temperatures on earth as during the past 17 years while CO2 concentrations have increased from 338ppmv to about 395ppmv, the mean temperatures on the earth have remained steady and declined from the highs found in 1978-1997! Also, we now know (Svensmark 2008) that cosmic forces far beyond our control (i.e. solar activity interacting with the physical expression of the strong nuclear force - pions - are the factors controlling our climate). CO2 has very little, if anything, to do with these powerful forces controlling heating and cooling of the earth's atmosphere. Do we remember the foolishness of Don Quixote? Carbon dioxide capture and storage falls into that fool's errand! Mankind cannot afford this expensive process. We need to focus on real air pollution issues - as I have done for 45 years - rather than largely irrelevant gases.
  • Mike on December 11 2014 said:
    We have tech that produces cleaner fuels from coal AND sequesters CO2 in mafic rock using supercritcal water in deep wells. Prying coal majors from the government trough is the hard part.
  • jnsesq on December 24 2014 said:
    "...plan for cutting global emissions that will slow the inexorable warming of the planet."

    Please! Enough with the "undeniable science" BS already. If you want to cut emissions, fine -- that is a legitimate goal on its own merits. But spare me the political deception / faux science agenda "rationale."
  • Icarus on December 26 2014 said:
    How much longer is the world's economy going to be held hostage by this leftist BS?
  • Dan on January 09 2015 said:
    Interesting how so many people still deny the facts. Land surface temps are only a small sampling of global warming. While land temp remains flat,the oceans are absorbing heat. I suggest looking into the concept of ambient heat. This is what is melting the ice caps. Once the ice caps are gone, we will see the earth's surface temps rise very quickly and of course, by then it will be much too late. All you idiots out there, calling scientists left wing radicals have not a clue. Scientists are among the most conservative people in this world . If anything, the situation is much more dire than the reports by the IPCC and other scientific panels publish. We may have already guaranteed catastrophe.
  • R Jensen on January 14 2015 said:
    You know something is crackpottery when you have to change it's name so that it can retain acceptance. E.g. "global warming" to "climate change."

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