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Al Gore’s right about carbon capture and sequestration

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Recently at COP24, the United Nations conference on climate change in Katowice, Poland, during an interview with Amy Harder of Axios, former vice president Al Gore unloaded on carbon capture and sequestration — the process that extracts carbon dioxide from exhaust streams, concentrates it, and injects it underground. Gore said CCS is “nonsense” and “an extremely improbable solution.”

I don’t usually say this, but Gore is right. Despite years of hype, CCS still costs too much and cannot come close to matching the scale of growing global carbon-dioxide emissions.

{mosads}Despite those facts, members of the House planned to introduce legislation last week that could provide more federal tax dollars for CCS. The House bill will be similar to SB 2602, introduced by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) in June. Barrasso’s bill provides incentives for CCS and research into pipeline siting and carbon-capture facilities.

CCS may be attractive to politicians looking to support projects in their districts, but when looked at with a clear eye, it’s obvious the technology is, and will continue to be, a tiny player in the effort to cut emissions.

The cost problem is displayed most vividly by the Kemper power plant in Mississippi, a project that aimed to prove feasibility of CCS. The project, owned by Southern Company, got $270 million in funding from the Department of Energy. When construction began on the 582-megawatt, coal-fired facility in 2010 it was expected to cost $2.4 billion. Instead, costs ballooned to $7.5 billion. Last year, Southern canceled the project, sticking ratepayers with about $1.1 billion of those costs.

The problems at Kemper won’t necessarily be repeated at other CCS plants; about 43 are being developed globally. Nevertheless, CCS projects are expensive because they require huge amounts of energy to separate and capture the carbon dioxide being emitted. Removing it from flue gas cuts a power plant’s output by as much as 28 percent. The cost of that reduction then must be spread across the cost of the entire project.

In Katowice, Gore underscored the other problem with CCS: “Nobody knows how to execute at scale.” Again, Gore’s right.

During a lecture in Paris in 2006, energy author and polymath Vaclav Smil showed that sequestering one-tenth of global carbon dioxide emissions (roughly 3 billion tons per year) with CCS would require “putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year” a volume of gas “equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally” by the oil and gas industry.

In other words, disposing of just 10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions with CCS would require building an industry as large and sophisticated as the global oil sector — in reverse. To put the scale in perspective, global oil production now totals about 100 million barrels per day. A VLCC supertanker holds about 2 million barrels. Therefore, getting rid of 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions would require burying the equivalent of 50 VLCC loads of worthless waste gas every day.

Where would all that CO2 be buried? And how would it get to the burial site? Pipelines of all kinds are being opposed by climate activists and landowners. Imagine the opposition that would face a pipeline carrying carbon dioxide, an asphyxiant that’s heavier than air. A major leak from such a pipeline or underground storage cavern could be deadly.

Before members of Congress commit any more money to CCS, they should talk to Al Gore.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the producer of the forthcoming documentary, “Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.”

Tags Al Gore Carbon capture and storage Carbon dioxide Carbon sequestration Climate change mitigation Energy economics John Barrasso

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