Dig a hole, save the planet: summing up carbon capture and storage

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 9 | Nov. 5 – 12, 2009

Problems are better in the ground than the sky.

That’s the basic idea behind carbon capture and storage (CCS), a means of extracting climate-changing carbon from fossil fuel emissions, and then storing the carbon underground. It has become an increasingly attractive option for those who want to reduce emissions and still use economically feasible fuel sources for industrial production and power plants.

Dr. Malcolm Wilson, who as a contributing member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was a 2007 co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, is the director of the university’s Office of Energy and Environment, and the director of the International Test Centre for CO2 Capture (ITC). He specializes in the underground storage of carbon emissions that can be captured from large industrial plants that burn fossil fuels. He’s one of the reasons why the University of Regina is known globally for its contributions in the field of carbon capture and storage.

The IPCC will be meeting from Dec. 7-18 in Copenhagen, Denmark, to discuss the issue of climate change and hopefully build agreements among the more than 150 nations that will be in attendance. Wilson presented at the conference in Poznaƒ, Poland that was held in December last year, and hopes to present on CCS in Copenhagen.

Carbon capture basically works by tipping the smokestacks of large industrial plants on their sides to create pipelines. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is extracted by a filtering device, while nitrogen and water vapour are allowed through. The IPCC reports that this could reduce a plant’s atmospheric CO2 emissions by approximately 80-90 per cent. Wilson compares it to putting “a catalytic converter on your car.”

The gas would be stored underground, between one and two kilometres, if not deeper, and would be subjected to intense pressures. Wilson says that by calculating the breaking pressure of the rock, we can easily manage the issue and avoid creating pressure problems. Ultimately, regular ground pressure would be restored “over a very short period of time,” which, coming from a geologist, means 50 to 100 years.

New wells would have to be drilled for the purposes of pumping captured carbon into the earth; these would be easier and safer than using abandoned mines or other wells because they would be designed according to the task at hand. Wilson points out that we have “100 years of knowledge and experience” when it comes to drilling deep holes and addressing any problems as they arise.

Wilson sees carbon capture and storage as a fundamental part of a multifaceted strategy that Canada must adopt in order to succeed in its goal of reducing climate-changing emissions by 20 per cent below 2006 levels by 2020.

“Your first line of attack to reduce emissions is not to produce them in the first place. I’m all for conservation, I’m all for energy efficiency, and I’m all for renewable energy. It’s just [that] none of them are going to do what we want in its entirety.” Humanity is emitting roughly 30 billion tons of CO2 annually, which will grow to 50 billion by 2050 if the rate of increase continues the way it is.

What about the high-energy costs associated with carbon capture? Wilson said, “It is going to increase costs, but so does anything else we do. People don’t understand that there’s cost in changing out their lighting to high-efficiency lighting. You can recoup that cost fairly quickly, but as we go further down, very often the costs of energy efficiency will go up.”

Wilson sees a missed opportunity in the government’s recent Economic Action Plan, which was designed to stimulate the economy. “Unfortunately, the Economic Plan is to get people working again… you need places you can spend money today.” Green jobs are not “shovel-ready projects.”

When asked about federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice’s statement that, “it’s hard to see a full and complete agreement” being achieved in Copenhagen, Wilson is conflicted. On the one hand, he said, it’s an honest assessment; U.S. president Obama’s domestic distractions may prevent him from taking a leading role in the conference, which would hamper progress. On the other hand, he said, these sorts of statements can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. In any event, Wilson said, CCS will be “one of the answers” to the carbon emissions crisis, and will be integral to a broad solution that entails multiple approaches.

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