CCS is crucial to the future of fossil fuel energy

Why Carbon Capture & Sequestration is Crucial to the Future of Fossil Fuel Energy and Why Western Canada Can’t Afford Not to Pursue It.

This is a tough article to write.  Not because it’s a difficult argument to make based on the science at hand and development of logical arguments based on the facts.  Rather because the whole field has become dominated by emotion, unverified beliefs, and dogmatic positions (on all sides).  Almost anything you use as a starting point of common understanding will be contrary to somebody’s absolute truth.  In fact this situation has gone on so long that people who normally pride themselves in being rational choose the path of the agnostic when it comes to anything related to climate change. Despite that, I will, along with numerous globally credible technical bodies, declare myself as fully convinced that climate change, heavily driven by human activity, is occurring.

Regardless of individual opinions on the merits of the science, the fact is that the international community is taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which I simplify to “carbon emissions”.  Those countries seeking to avoid responsibility for their emissions point to the rapidly developing BRIC countries (especially China) as the fastest growing emitters with China soon to be the largest among us, not on a per capitabasis, but simply because of their vast numbers of capitae and their rapid rise from relative poverty.  All of this finger pointing has had an unexpected result: the Chinese government is paying attention.  In its 12thfive-year plan, released in 2011, five provinces were chosen to pilot programs to lead the country toward a radically reduced carbon emissions future.

A historical look at the global carbon cycle

A few hundred years ago the global carbon cycle was approximately in balance.  Carbon was emitted from decomposition of biomass, from burning of wood or charcoal, and in small quantities from volcanic activity.  At the same time growing plants extracted CO2 from the atmosphere, rain captured some and delivered it to the oceans where it was absorbed through various mechanisms. All of these processes were more or less in balance. Perhaps a large forest fire or volcano would swing the atmospheric CO2 higher for a period of time, then forests would grow a little faster and oceans would become slightly more acidic, until balance was restored. This cycle took place while there was a huge amount of carbon stored underground in the form of natural gas, oil and coal.

With the industrial revolution, carbon that had not participated in the cycle for millions of years was, and continues to be, released into the atmosphere at increasingly rapid rates.

None of this is news to folks who have followed the conversation.  The point really is that the access to concentrated energy delivered by fossil fuels drove the abundant wealth that was released in an amazingly short period of time.  That same wealth enabled the global population to develop technology and expand to unprecedented levels.  The release of carbon into the atmosphere was the hidden interest on the withdrawals we have made from the geological energy bank.

The future of the global carbon cycle

Between now and 2050 the population of the world will grow from 7 billion to between 9 and 10 billion.  At the same time, a huge percentage of that population will be moving out of extreme poverty.  That is relatively speaking, for they will be moving from annual incomes in the range of a couple of hundred dollars to a few thousand.  However the net effect will be a doubling of global energy consumption.

But never fear!  We will be rapidly transitioning from our present 80% fossil fuel energy based position to somewhere between a 40 and 60% fossil fuel energy driven world.  This means that the global consumption of fossil fuel energy is likely to be about what it is today, but only if we work really hard at getting off those fossil fuels.

Finding a solution

There are people who believe the correct solution is to turn off the taps.  Leave the fossil fuels in the ground.  They see a world where renewables and energy efficiency make up the difference. This may be possible in a few locations that are blessed by abundant wind, solar, hydro and land to develop these resources.  It may also be true in corners where the population isn’t doubling or clawing its way out of poverty, but turning off the taps is not an option for those moving up in the world.

In the long term we will need to transition from fossil fuel energy to inherently low-carbon emitting energy systems.  These may be nuclear, solar or something else.  At the same time we need to improve our energy efficiency.  We also need to work very hard at developing innovative and low cost renewable energy sources: solar electric building cladding, low cost, robust wind turbines of various sizes, better energy storage systems, etc.  There is no silver bullet. We need every cost effective energy source we can find to face the challenge before us.

I’m not suggesting the West stop producing fossil fuel derived energy.  On the contrary, we must produce it faster, cleaner and cheaper.  At the same time we need to deal with the consequences – the carbon emissions interest that is long past due.  In the near term, the only large, industrial-scale solution for addressing carbon emissions from existing energy sources is carbon capture and sequestration.  This is an approach that can flange up to existing infrastructure, not waiting for huge capital investments in infrastructure to turn over in 25, 30 or 50 years.

How does it work?

To discuss what we mean by CCS, we need to break it down.  First carbon emissions, primarily in the form of CO2, need to be captured.  It then needs to be safely and permanently stored.

For large stationary emitters such as industrial boilers, power plants, hydrocarbon refineries or upgraders, there is a single point source from which the CO2 can be captured and concentrated.  In many cases the CO2 is delivered by pipeline to a location where it may be pumped into a failing oil field to enhance recovery.  Enhanced oil recovery, or EOR, is the most economically attractive form of CO2 sequestration because it also increases oil production.  However the potential for EOR as a CO2 storage route only amounts to a small fraction of the total volume required to sequester.

Another form of sequestration pressurizes the CO2 to a supercritical fluid state.  In this state, the CO2 is a dense fluid regardless of temperature.  This liquid-like CO2 is then pumped to depths of over a kilometer where it mixes and displaces a salty brine that is trapped in deep, porous and permeable  rock formations.  Some of the CO2 dissolves into the water and then slowly reacts with the rock, forming carbonate minerals. The remainder of the CO2 is trapped as fluid in tiny pores in the rock.  Formations selected for this treatment are chosen because the layers of tight “cap rock” that over-lay them prevent the CO2 from percolating to the surface.  These are often the same formations that have prevented oil or gas from seeping to the surface for millions of years.

While this works for big stationary emitters,  the majority of carbon emissions from fossil fuels occur at the point of combustion, often at non-stationary or smaller distributed sources such as in airplanes, automobiles, trucks, ships, furnaces, etc.  Capture at all of these smaller sources is unlikely to be practical without research breakthroughs[1].

But isn’t CCS risky?

Not really.  Most of the technology being used in demonstration projects presently under development is not dramatically different from what was available in industrial processes since the 1950s.  Sequestration of highly toxic acid gas in the Earth’s subsurface has been common practice for decades.  Such practices are regularly permitted without comment.  Although the researchers working in the CCS field are rigorously exploring every imaginable form of failure, for the most part the largest concern is what the financial risk might be if a sequestration site were to leak gas at more than the 1% per 1,000 years rate that is the current regulatory standard. This is worth noting.  One of the most active areas of research is trying to develop ways to detect or locate such a small change or leak.  You might have a valve in your house leaking water at a rate that would exceed this limit.

The big challenge is to get the cost, primarily at the CO2 capture stage, down from the present $100/tonne to a range of $20 to $40/tonne.  This is something that is within reach over the next decade or two.  This would add in the range of $12 to $24/barrel to the cost of the highest emitting oilsands bitumen produced ($10 to $21/barrel for Kuwaiti light sweet crude) when considering all emissions from production to final consumption.   Not trivial, but not unimaginable in a world of $100+ oil.

But why the urgency?

Canada is in an ideal position to take a leadership role in this technology field.  It is largely built on the back of our existing oil and gas technologies; many of the same geological, engineering, and technical skill sets are required.  In addition, the global community is moving toward greater emphasis on a carbon emissions constrained world.  At some point fossil fuel energy may even be certified as to the carbon footprint of the products.  It would be better to be in a position of competitive advantage, rather than remaining at the mercy of domestic politics within our client countries.

Some variations of carbon capture & sequestration, or CCS, will be necessary to extend the life and viability of the fossil fuel sector in the coming carbon constrained world.  Canada, especially Western Canada, is ideally positioned to become a leader and supplier to the world of services, know-how and technologies in this burgeoning field.  This could be the next big economic driver, building on the huge capacity and wealth that came from the fossil energy sector.

It is time to seize a leadership position, but most importantly, if we don’t lead, we will follow.  And if we follow we will be buying expertise, technology and skills from someone else.