Insights and Commentaries
Getting real about carbon capture and storage
15th May 2015
The following Insight is an excerpt from an article by Chris Davies, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) 1999-2014 and Rapporteur for the CCS Directive and the Parliament's implementation report on CCS. Read the full article here.
Why would anyone want to bury carbon dioxide (CO2)? The idea seemed crazy when I first heard of it a decade or so ago. Proponents of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will argue that it’s better to bury CO2 than release it into the atmosphere if the object is to combat global warming. But surely it would be better not to create the problem in the first place?
This was the thought I had in my mind when, as a European MP with a special interest in environmental matters, I walked into the British Foreign Office in 2007 for a discussion about climate change. I left the building a couple of hours later with changed perceptions.
The man who made the difference was John Ashton, founder of the non-profit making E3G group that promotes sustainable development and at the time the Special Representative on Climate Change for the UK’s Foreign Secretary. John emphasised the need for much improved energy efficiency and welcomed the rapid growth in the application of renewable electricity technology, but what struck home most forcefully (and I paraphrase him) was his “Get Real” message.
China, he pointed out, was completing as many as two new coal power stations every week, and each of them could be expected to operate for at least 30 years. Coal was cheap, and was being used in increasing quantities by developing nations despite being the principal source of CO2 emissions. Whatever the potential of renewable systems we couldn’t ignore the reality that coal was likely to play a significant role in global electricity provision throughout much of the 21st century. CCS had a role to play in combating global warming, he insisted.
The technology requires CO2 to be separated from other gases in a power plant’s waste stream. It must then be transported to a storage site, probably by pipeline. Finally, it has to be injected into secure rock formations perhaps two or more kilometres underground where it will remain indefinitely and quite probably forever. This storage method is the same that has kept oil and natural gas securely under the ground for millions of years. The processes require the application of known industrial methods, most of which have been used for half a century or more. Geologists say they are identifying potential sites with the necessary characteristics for CO2 injection and permanent storage all the time.
Seeing is believing. A few months after my Foreign Office meeting I was in the Sahara Desert, standing on a small concrete platform on which was mounted an industrial pump. Into this came a pipe carrying compressed CO2, separated from recently extracted methane at the nearby In Salah gas plant. There was silence. “Listen carefully,” I was told, and on putting my ear to the pipe I could hear a slight hiss, it was the sound of CO2 that would otherwise have been vented into the atmosphere, more than a tonne every minute.
Convinced that CCS had a role to play in combating global warming, I took a lead during 2008 in steering legislation through the European Parliament that laid down rules for the safe storage of CO2, preparing the way for the technology’s widespread adoption. Seven years later they have yet to be put to the test. With various degrees of frustration at the lack of progress I have many times since then asked the question, why is it so hard to secure the political support and financial backing that will allow CCS to demonstrate its potential?
Money will oil the wheels and make the difference. Renewable electricity has been stimulated by generous financial subsidies; investment in CCS will need to be supported by something of the same. The UK’s carrot-and-stick approach for CCS development in the power sector is the most advanced in Europe and, in theory at least, provides a model for the future. The ‘stick’ is a regulatory instrument (emissions performance standard) that outlaws the building of coal power stations with wholly unabated CO2 emissions. The ‘carrot’ comes in the shape of both capital and operating (contracts-for-difference) subsidies intended to stimulate CCS investment.
Over the years the European Commission has gone through the motions of supporting CCS but rarely with much show of enthusiasm. It just may be that new Climate and Energy Commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete, is the man who will make the difference. His statements since taking office have been unambiguous in their recognition that the technology has an important role to play in helping the European Union achieve its climate objectives. His levers of power are limited but his ability to shape the agenda is immense.
Fresh thinking is needed. A sense of urgency must be injected into the process. Heads need to be knocked together to resolve difficulties and ensure that decisions are taken. With political will progress could be quickly made. If CCS is at last to have a champion in Europe, who better than the European Commissioner?
This is an excerpt from an opinion piece by Chris Davies, Member of the European Parliament 1999-2014 and CCS Rapporteur. Click here to read the full version.