Environment

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Thierry Charlier/AP
Jim Rogers, chief executive officer of Duke Energy, spoke during a 2008 panel discussion
on climate change in Brussels, Belgium.

Battle Lines Drawn Over Clean Coal

April 26, 2009 06:00 PM
by Mark E. Moran
Capturing carbon dioxide and pumping it into the ground could be an innovative way to protect the earth, but some environmentalists oppose such projects.

Carbon Dioxide Sequestration Projects Meet Opposition

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Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency declared carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases to be a public health danger.

In a 60 Minutes report to be broadcast tonight, Jim Hansen, a climate scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, calls coal burning the greatest threat to the planet, and tells 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley that in the next two decades “we are going to have to have a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants within the next few years and phase out the existing ones." 

Doing so, Hanesn said, will help to, "preserve the climate like the one that has existed the last several thousand years."

But Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, told Pelley that in order to keep the economy viable, "We can't abandon coal." Rogers acknowledges the need to clean up coal, but says that making his company carbon-free will take 40 years. 

One response is carbon capture and sequestration. It is a new technology that captures carbon dioxide from industrial smokestacks and pumps it deep into the earth, where, it is hoped, it would remain forever.

Carbon capture technology first came to the fore in the mid-1990s, most often used to enhance the productivity of oil fields by forcing oil to the surface. Norway's StatoilHydro ASA has been capturing carbon dioxide from the production of natural gas in the North Sea, and storing it in an acquifer far below the seabed.

A New Jersey Star-Ledger article on a proposed capture and sequestration scheme for a new plant in Linden, N.J. details how the battle lines are being drawn in the debate over carbon capture.

According to the article, the Linden plant, a $5 billion project called "PurGen," is a coal-fueled facility that will employ a 100-mile, underground pipeline to push as much as 10 million tons of carbon dioxide per year to a point 70 miles off the coast line and 1.25 miles beneath the ocean.

Critics of the plan question how technologists can predict with certainty what will happen to the sequestered carbon dioxide decades or centuries after it is captured.

"Why do they think the carbon will be held there for centuries?" Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club asked the Star Ledger. "No one knows. No one can say for sure. This is a gamble. We'd be better off investing in wind, solar and energy efficiency."

But Frank Smith, one of the principals of SCS Engineers, the company behind the Linden plant, claims that "if you look at each component to be included in the plant, they are each well-established, standard and tried technologies. Gasification has been around since the early 1930s, and sequestration since the 1970s."

Some activists point to a 1986 natural release of CO2 from Lake Nyos in Cameroon, that killed approximately 1,700 people. But Harvard professor Daniel Schrag, who has reviewed the Linden project, told the Star Ledger, "we're talking about sequestering the CO2 under at least 2,000 meters of clay. It's not possible to have an earthquake to fracture that." 

Schrag went on to say that he's an environmentalist, though, "I'm not like groups like Greenpeace, which is saying we can take care of all our energy demands with wind and solar."

Related Topic: Carbon sequestration is opposed elsewhere

Opposition to carbon sequestration is not limited to the United States. Residents in the Netherlands town of Barendrecht are opposing a demonstration project by Royal Dutch Shell.

Journal reporter Guy Chazan writes that the grass roots opposition “shows how not-in-my-backyard activism can trump efforts to stop global warming, even in countries with powerful green movements like the Netherlands.”

Shell’s plan seeks to reduce emissions from an oil refinery near the port of Rotterdam. It would pipe carbon dioxide about 11 miles to Barendrecht, where it would be injected into existing, but nearly exhausted, gas fields. It would be a small demonstration project that could lay the ground for much larger projects in the Netherlands, which has a large number of empty underground gas fields.

But when Shell, one of the largest companies in the Netherlands, created its environmental-impact assessment for the project earlier, more than 1,000 residents filed objections, and the town council voted against it.

Anne-Marie van het Erve, a spokeswoman for Barendrecht's council. Told the Wall Street Journal that "It’s not just NIMBYism. A large part of the carbon-storage technology is unproved. And we're saying if it's an experiment, you shouldn't be doing it in an urban environment." Ms. Van het Erve also raised the incident at Lake Nyos in Cameroon as a source of concern.

Despite the local opposition, Shell, which has the support of the Dutch government and other authorities, expects to get the green light on the project. A Shell spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that "We say look at the facts and the risk analysis and you'll see that it's safe. CO2 is not poisonous and can't explode." 

The spokesman added that many complaints "are based on emotions."

Reference: Carbon dioxide sequestration

A report on the Environmental Protection Agency's Website on Geological Sequestration of carbon dioxide and other gases is based on a 2005 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It cites this report for the premise that confidence in sequestration "is supported by the knowledge that CO2 produced through natural processes has been retained in geologic formations for hundreds of millions of years."

Different trapping methods can keep carbon dioxide from moving underground, "decreasing the risk of CO2 leaking to the surface." 

However, with the change in presidential administrations, the EPA may take a different view on carbon sequestration.

A Scientific American article from March 2007 is based on a report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The article agrees with Duke Energy CEO Rogers that coal will continue to be used to generate electricity for the foreseeable future. It concludes from the MIT report that "geologic sequestration is the solution best suited to minimize the attendant carbon dioxide pollution." 

Implementing sequestration will involved building an "infrasctructure comparable to the national highway system" for liquid carbon dioxide, the article said, "as well as assessing which coal-burning technologies work best with which carbon capture technologies."

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