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Know the West

Money and climate


Ah, money. During one of the biggest shopping times of the year, after spending Thanksgiving morning rolling stacks of coins with the kids, my thoughts turn to it, naturally. Or maybe unnaturally; what was mostly on my mind was the high cost of doing something to slow climate change. Specifically, I was thinking about carbon capture.

Carbon capture is just what it sounds like: taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It's a great idea, capturing the CO2 from a coal-fired power plant before it gets into the atmosphere. I always imagine a giant sock-like apparatus on top of a smokestack, billowing and bulging up as carbon dioxide fills it. (Disclaimer: That's not actually how it works.)

Of course, like all great ideas, this one comes with a catch. Whether it's a giant sock or a solvent capturing CO2 from a "slipstream of flue gas," as the Department of Energy describes its new test project, capturing carbon is very, very expensive. That's why the DOE project, part of its Post-Combustion Carbon Capture Center (PC4), is testing out new technologies -- so that industry can have some cost-effective options some day in the future.

The carbon capture project at E.C. Gaston plant in Alabama.

A recent article in the Financial Times described cost problems in Europe too, where both British and EU grants to fund installation of capture technology on power plants have gone unclaimed by power plants.

"This is because a chief problem of CCS is not its technical feasibility: different industries have been using bits of the technology for years. Combining it on a power plant in a way that makes financial sense is fantastically troublesome, however," FT reports. That's because there's both a big upfront cost and ongoing costs, such as the fact that running a capture facility on the power plant steals away some of the power it is trying to sell.

One possible solution mentioned in the article: instead of big grants to start up a CCS project, a combination of one-time grants and longer term subsidies, such as those given to biofuels, wind, or solar.

Another, mentioned in a Bloomberg story focusing on Scotland: put that CO2 to use to improve oil extraction, which can make lots of money for whoever owns the oil. This technique is already used in the Permian Basin, although, ironically, the carbon dioxide used, rather than being captured, is mined from the ground in southwest Colorado.

In one Canadian oilfield, however, the CO2 used in enhancing oil extraction is captured from a nearby coal gasification plant across the border in North Dakota.

This brings me to one of the funny ironies of carbon capture and storage: one of the best places to store CO2 is likely to be just where we found it: the oil fields. In Europe, both Norway and the Netherlands have competing plans to take CO2 from other countries and inject it into reservoirs in the North Sea that once held oil, for both storage and enhanced recovery of the oil and natural gas that remains.

Norway also just opened a $1 billion capture project, the largest such test facility for carbon storage in the world. The Scandinavian country is investing in carbon capture in part because it wants its fossil fuel industries to continue to do well. Basically, it's saying: we want to keep selling oil and natural gas, because they are profitable and make us one of the richest countries in the world, but in our increasingly carbon saturated world, if we're going to do that, we may also need to be responsible for where the carbon dioxide from those resources ultimately ends up.

Of course, Norway can afford to do that. The fossil fuel-rich nation is one of the richest countries in the world.

The United States, recently reported to become one of the biggest oil exporters in the world, is, too.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.