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Carbon storage might not be so permanent

Tyler Hamilton's picture

Tyler Hamilton is a business columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper. In addition to this Clean Break blog, Tyler writes a weekly column of the same name that...

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  • Feb 15, 2009 5:01 am GMT
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Okay, as far as the concept of carbon capture and storage goes,  the idea — technologically — is intriguing. What many readers of this blog don’t like is how the industry talks about this technology like it’s here today so, hell, let’s drill for even more oil and burn more coal. We’re a decade away from seeing even just a small number of large-scale CCS projects in operation, so talk today of coal plants or oil-sand operations being “CCS-ready” is nothing more than greenwashing. I would imagine most people don’t mind the Canadian government supporting R&D into CCS, but what they perhaps don’t like is that the investment is being made to the exclusion of everything else. Why, it’s reasonable to ask, take a silver-bullet approach to a technology that’s a decade away? Would it not be better to balance it with near-term measures and investment in technologies that are here today?

But let’s assume, a decade out, that all the promise of CCS pans out. Let’s assume it takes hold, that a vast network of pipelines is built, that we’re certain sequestration sites won’t leak, and that the percentage of CO2 we can capture from coal plants and industrial sites continues to improve. Let’s assume that two decades out we start to see a number of acquifers and old oil fields filled to capacity with CO2 and, finally, capped shut.

Think those storage sites will be forever permanent? Think again.

I was talking recently with someone heading up a government algae-based carbon recycling program. The goal of this program is to come up with an economic way to divert CO2-rich flue gases from industrial sites and coal plants to nearby enclosed algae farms. The algae would “eat” the CO2, grow quickly, and then be harvested to make a combination of products, from biodiesel and ethanol to protein feed for livestock. I’m probably not telling you anything new — there are dozens of companies out there trying to do the same thing.

But then this person, who shall remain nameless, says something that caught my attention. He called all those storage sites “gold mines of the future.” At first I didn’t get what he was saying, then I realized the significance of that comment. He was basically saying that, down the road, algae farms could be created right on top of CO2 storage sites. The farms could be designed to pump this CO2 back to the surface, giving them a predictable stream of relatively pure algae food. An earlier scenario would be to build these algae farms at CO2 pipeline hubs. Either way, it would be much more economical than building an algae farm/processing plant next to each and every coal plant or aluminum smelter.

There’s a part of me that loves this idea, and there’s a part that asks: Shouldn’t we leave this stuff alone? Sure, the biodiesel and ethanol and other chemical products made from this algae will presumably displace the use of oil down the road. But given that, long term, we’re going to need an 80 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions globally, developing infrastructure for this would seem to undermine this target.

It made me realize that short- and medium-term ideas, despite there merit, need to be considered as part of a larger long-term picture. CO2 stored, assuming we can ever make it work to the scale that’s necessary, is probably best if capped shut and left alone.

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