Bryce's turn to get it wrong on CCS

What is it about “do-it-all thinkers” trying their hand at bashing carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) lately? After the Economides couple tried to convince the world in the face of unanimous scientific and stakeholder outcry that their musings had settled the impossibility of storing CO2 underground, now Robert Bryce offered his views in a New York Times op-ed. The picture is very much the same: simplistic arguments and even myths are used to “settle the debate once and for all”. It seems that the whole world has got it wrong again...

The IPCC and the hundreds of geologists, engineers and other scientists who worked on the Special Report on CCS in 2005, as well as environmentalists around the world, the oil industry and the power industry – they have all apparently made mistakes that thinkers new to CCS can readily point out. Granted, some might see this as a fashionable area of research or academic musings, but it is disappointing to see that some basic facts are being missed. Interestingly, Bryce seems to have common (conservative?) ground with Economides in believing that green energy is oversold and unfeasible. You are entitled to your own opinion, gentlemen, but not to your own facts…

Let’s get to the substance of Bryce’s arguments though. He makes three claims: that CCS uses too much energy, that pipelines cannot carry the volumes of CO2 that would be captured from power plants and industrial facilities, and that there isn’t sufficient space in the subsurface to dispose of this CO2.

CCS does use additional energy – there is no denying that. A 10% reduction in the efficiency of a power plant is not unreasonable to expect in the early years. Bryce’s figure, as well as being high, ignores that CO2 is captured for a purpose, and also the benefits of doing so. Keeping the CO2 from being emitted to the atmosphere has distinct environmental benefits – much like scrubbing sulfur and nitrogen oxides, particulates and mercury – all of which take some energy. What Bryce also seems to miss is that this is not an energy penalty that will be applied to the whole electricity or industrial sector. It will be applied only to those plants that use CCS, which will be outnumbered by non-CCS plants for some time. There are numerous other ways to reduce emissions, and CCS is only part of the mix – and is unlikely to be the most significant part (almost all analyses forecast that energy efficiency will be the main pillar of the needed reductions).

As far as pipelines go, Bryce misinterprets a PNNL study which essentially says the opposite of what he claims. Unlike oil and gas pipelines which transport those commodities over long distances from the point of production to value markets and the point of end use, there is no fundamental reason to transport CO2 over long distances. A CO2 pipeline only needs to be long enough to take CO2 from its point of capture to the nearest or most economical geologic depository. A mapping of CO2 sources and sinks in the U.S. presented in the PNNL paper that Bryce mentions, states that 95% percent of the largest stationary CO2 sources are within 50 miles of existing storage sites, and that only 6,000 miles pipeline would need to be built before 2030 to enable CCS deployment that is consistent with climate stabilization. By comparison, over 3,900 miles of pipelines transport CO2 in the U.S. today, and 270,000 miles of large inter- and intra-state natural gas pipeline was built between 1950 and 2000.

In terms of capacity, or space, to dispose of the CO2, Bryce is again grossly out in his estimates. As Sarah Forbes of WRI points out here, the DOE has estimated the overall potential for storage in the US to be at 3,600 to 12,900 billion metric tons of CO2, which is several orders of magnitude higher than the total annual CO2 emissions of the entire U.S. which are roughly equal to 6 billion metric tons. Not all of this capacity will be realized, of course. Economic, geologic and other factors may render some of it unsuitable. But that still leaves us with substantial space to bury CO2, despite Bryce’s seemingly impressive metrics in terms of supertanker volumes.

As to his last point – public resistance – he might be on to something. CCS will not be met with universal support, nor will it be met with universal opposition. Its fate will depend on the track record of pilot projects, the effectiveness of the regulatory system, local attitudes towards climate change and towards holes in the ground, as well as accurate information on the technology, its benefits and its risks.

If you are looking for such information, please ignore Mr. Bryce (with all due respect, of course). If you can be in Sacramento on June 10th, come to our joint workshop to listen to leading scientists on this topic instead.