Journal Club Review – Carbon Capture and Storage

March’s journal club was lead by Chelsea Crooks. Journal club review was written by Amanda Hurley (Postdoc in Jo Hanelsman’s lab).

“What if climate change is a hoax and we created a better world for NOTHING?”

While the federal government stalls on carbon emission legislation, CaSP’s Wednesday journal club addressed the possibility of another climate change mitigator: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The group assembled in the room, assuming the discussion would lead to extreme gardening. Carbon storage?  We all thought it was trees. We were WRONG.

CCS specifically refers to technology that filters carbon dioxide out of emissions and injects it underground. The carbon dioxide becomes trapped beneath an impermeable layer of rock or dissolves into salty water. Could this be the perfect compromise? Could CCS allow industry and energy sectors to continue pumping billions of CO2 metric tons into the atmosphere AND protect our planet from climate change?

What’s a government to do?

CCS technology has actually been around for almost a century, long before we noticed the polar ice caps were melting. Unfortunately for the environment, there is no incentive for the industry and energy sectors to research and apply CCS to their own factories and plants. Historically, that’s when the federal government steps in. The Department of Energy, under Bush and Obama, poured billions of dollars into 18 CCS energy projects, the goal of which was to increase the capacity of carbon capture. The results of this massive funding effort could be the reason people have lukewarm respect for CCS technology. Thirteen of the eighteen projects were “discontinued” (aka FAILED).  

The unicorn of federally-funded CCS projects.

Of the five completed projects, there is only one I would call “successful” at carbon capture and storage. While many other projects were only able to reduce secondary greenhouse gases (nitrogen and sulfur based), the Petra Nova energy generation station in Texas is able to capture 33% of the total emitted CO2. Why was Petra Nova able to succeed where others failed? Because outside investment from NRG and a Japanese bank were secured in advance. Also, construction did not start from scratch (unlike the disastrous Kemper Project). The CCS technology was applied to a previously-operating plant.  

Fate of CCS technology.

The results of these projects to not require a PhD to interpret. The failure rate of these projects is disturbing. We understand how a congressperson could respond with, “this is not worth my taxpayers dollar.” So how do we get people in legislature excited about CCS? Interestingly, there ARE successful plants around the world integrating CCS technology. The greatest capacity for carbon capture actually resides in the United States. Century Plant, a natural gas processing facility, can capture up to 8.4 million tons per year. However, this is less than 1% of the US’s annual production. Clearly the technology must be improved if CCS is to be a replacement for decreasing carbon emissions.   

Fate of climate law.  

For us, the most reasonable answer is to enact a carbon tax or cap-and-trade law. Carbon legislation would incentivize companies to do whatever is best. If the most cost-effective solution is CCS technology, the market will decide. A great model for this is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a collaboration between Northeast and mid-Atlantic states to cap carbon emissions at the state-level. Since the agreement in 2007, power section CO2 emissions has dropped from over 140 million tons per year to almost 80 while GDP for the 9 states steadily increases.  

While the incentive to reduce carbon emissions would be increased with a carbon tax, what’s the incentive for the carbon tax in the first place? Why spend money today on tomorrow’s problem? Fortunately, some precocious children in Oregon are taking their future into their own hands. In Juliana v U.S., the “youth” have filed a constitutional climate lawsuit that asserts the government has violated the youngest generation’s rights to life, liberty, and property by refusing to control climate change. Of course, the fossil fuel industry attempted to join the government as a defendant, which is just gross. Thankfully in June 2017 the judge “released” the fossil fuel industry and set a trial date. I love that this is happening and have signed their petition in support. They are demanding science-based action on climate change. What more could we ask for?!?!?