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Carbon Capture: Real, or Just Blowing Smoke?

In midst of coal rush, Michigan tests controversial technology

October 27, 2008 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Carbon capture is squeezing oil from wells off of Norway’s coast, a process aided by that country’s CO2 tax.
GAYLORD—In Otsego County earlier this year, a drilling crew from Traverse City-based Core Energy punched two holes in the ground outside this county seat of 3,700 residents. As they bored down nearly 6,000 feet into layers of rock older than dinosaurs, the crew pushed Michigan closer to the center of one of the most important scientific and economic discussions of our time—whether by storing their plants’ greenhouse gas emissions (CO2) underground, utilities can continue to use coal to make electricity without wrecking the planet’s climate.

To date, Michigan’s energy discussion has hardly touched on the “carbon capture” technology being tested here. Instead, it is focused on Michigan’s 20 existing coal plants—many among the country’s oldest and, collectively, the nation’s tenth-largest source of CO2 emissions—and whether the state should allow companies to build eight new ones, the most proposed for any state.

Only one of the proposed plants, near Alma, might try to capture CO2, the principal cause of global climate change.

A coalition of state and national environmental organizations argue that new coal plants of any sort, including those that capture carbon, are unnecessary in Michigan. They add that if the state aggressively moves utilities and customers toward energy efficiency and construction of more wind turbines, solar panels, and other renewable sources, the state could eventually turn off some old, particularly dirty coal plants.

That day moved a little closer last month when the Michigan Legislature required utilities to use more renewable energy and increase energy efficiency, and to begin paying better rates to homes and businesses for power from self-installed solar panels and other renewable energy sources.

The votes, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission and clean energy producers, reflect the fact that electricity from renewable sources is or soon will be cheaper than electricity generated from new coal-fired plants. The price of new coal plants has doubled in 18 months, according to several studies, and the price of coal itself has increased almost as sharply. But the wind and sun are free.

State officials and utility executives insist, however, that the state needs new coal plants: Michigan generates 61 percent of its electricity from coal, 11 percent higher than the national average; so, they assert, it will provide most of Michigan’s electricity for decades.

According to Energy Department scientists, a future so dependent on coal means taking a close look at carbon sequestration for at least some of Michigan utilities’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists and industry experts around the world are researching the still-unproven technology, the cost of which is not yet well understood. Australia and Ireland are testing it, and, with strong support from Indiana’s Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, Duke Power is building a new-technology coal-burning power plant in Edwardsport, Ind., that might someday capture carbon.

It Works…
Now Michigan is stepping into the sequestration arena with the underground experiment in Otsego. It is part of a $23.75 million research project, financed by the federal Energy Department, to test the geological suitability of the Midwest for sequestration.

During 18 days in February and March, Core Energy pumped 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide down one of the wells, and used the other to monitor for leaks. Scientists at Western Michigan University, which manages the Energy Department’s Michigan sequestration work, say that developing the state’s capacity to store carbon dioxide could establish a new economic sector in the state.

"Michigan possesses a substantial volume of underground void space," said Dr. David Barnes, associate professor of geosciences at WMU who participated in the Otsego test. "This is a real economic opportunity for the state of Michigan."

The early research findings from the Otsego test, the largest of its kind in the nation, strongly suggest that injecting CO2 underground can be done in Michigan without incident, a result consistent with what the U.S. oil industry has found in Texas, Mississippi and other states for more than 30 years. A second series of tests, using larger quantities of CO2, is being planned.However, the political consequences of those tests and dozens more that the Energy Department is conducting across the nation at a cost this year of $400 million, are not nearly as clear. The findings, which seemingly confirm the nation’s ability to permanently store billions of tons of carbon dioxide safely, have not quelled concerns about the technique.

Depending on who is talking, carbon capture and sequestration is:

  1. An expensive, unproven technology that will enable the nation to continue burning coal while diverting investment capital from clean, renewable, carbon-free or -neutral energy sources like wind, solar, geo-thermal, and biomass.

  2. A practice that is less complicated and expensive than the nation’s utilities acknowledge.

  3. A new market that can use fees on carbon emissions to generate tens of billions of dollars for public clean energy investments.

  4. What the oil industry needs to pressurize old oil wells and generate millions of barrels of domestic oil at lower cost and with a carbon footprint that industry authorities say is 70 percent lower than production from imports or new domestic wells.

Robert G. Mannes, the 41-year-old president and chief executive of Core Energy, a company that specializes in “enhanced oil recovery,” is an expert on the last point. In an interview, Mr. Mannes explained that oil reservoirs, located under pressure thousands of feet below the surface, typically behave like a shaken bottle of pop. Drilling into them is the same as removing the cap: the oil races to the surface.

When the pressure subsides, he says, just as in a bottle of pop, 60 to 80 percent of the oil is still underground. CO2 sequestration, he said, can change that.

….But Should We Do It?
That is why, in 2003, Mr. Mannes formed Core Energy and began taking a third of the carbon dioxide from a natural gas processing plant, piping it to, and then pumping it into old oil wells. The wells quickly jumped to much higher levels of production.

Core Energy’s use of CO2-enhanced oil recovery, which is regulated by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is the only project of its kind east of the Mississippi River, said Mr. Mannes. Using CO2 from power plants, he said, would make the practice less expensive and more available to domestic oil suppliers seeking to enhance oil recovery from existing wells.

“It’s not hard to do and it’s safe,” said Mr. Mannes. “To me, it makes a lot of sense. We’re using it to produce domestic oil with a lot less environmental damage than drilling new wells on the Outer Continental Shelf or in Alaska. Our problem in the oil industry is we need more CO2. That’s where sequestering CO2 from power plants can help.”

But, like many other environmental experts, David Gard, the energy program director at the Michigan Environmental Council, is suspicious of technologies that could lead to the continuation of coal as a major source of fuel in the United States and globally.

Mr. Gard said that the utility industry has not yet proven the safety or effectiveness of carbon sequestration to prevent CO2 emissions from coal-burning power plants. And he is convinced that clean and renewable energy sources are both better for the environment and the 21st-century economy.

“Developing sequestration technology is a temporary fix and a diversion from what we really need to do solve climate change and rebuild our economy,” said Mr. Gard. “Coal is just not the answer.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists points out another problem facing carbon sequestration: the sheer amount of pipelines and underground space required to transport and store enough CO2 to have a meaningful effect on carbon emissions. According to a UCS report issued earlier this month, the Department of Energy estimates that such sequestration would require “an enormous processing and transportation infrastructure that could handle a volume of liquefied carbon dioxide rivaling that of the oil consumed in the United States today.”

The USC report added that the annual storage space needed for a single, typical 600-megawatt plant's emissions would be approximately four times the volume of the Empire State Building.

To opponents of carbon capture, those add up to prohibitive costs.

Indiana’s Bet
But Indiana is betting that carbon sequestration for new coal-burning power plants will occur. The state has its reasons: With 27 mines and nearly 3,000 mine-related jobs, it is the nation’s seventh-largest coal producer, digging up 35 million tons of it each year, according to Purdue University.

And Indiana burns lots of coal. According to the Indiana Center for Coal Technology Research, the state burned 72.4 million tons last year to get 95 percent of its electricity.

Though Governor Daniel has introduced new programs to promote renewable energy, efficiency, and conservation programs, the state remains intent on burning coal, albeit more cleanly. The governor launched a program within the state environmental agency to develop a permitting system for regulating carbon sequestration, and Duke Energy is building a $2.35 billion commercial-scale, new-technology coal plant using a process known as IGCC. One day it may be able to capture at least 20 percent of its carbon dioxide.

But the new plant, which earlier this year received its state air permit, has generated intense public opposition over its higher cost, its effect on electricity rates, and environmental concerns. A survey last spring found most state residents preferred to pursue cleaner ways to generate power.

Duke’s proposed 630-megawatt plant, which the company hopes to complete by 2012, could be the first in the country to capture and sequester carbon dioxide, and perhaps the first in the world. One of the major costs, say scientists at the state coal technology research center, a unit of Purdue University, is its efficiency loss.

Estimates of that loss vary widely; Purdue’s study puts it at about 3 percent, but a study by the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry group, puts it at 25 percent, although IGCC’s more efficient combustion method, which also emits less CO2, partially offsets that.

And Duke might make up some of the expense of sequestration by selling the captured CO2 to Michigan’s oil industry for enhanced oil recovery in older wells.

“I went to a meeting in Indiana where they talked about this plant and talked about piping the gas to Mississippi,” said Mr. Mannes. “I kind of tapped them on the shoulder and reminded them that Michigan had an oil industry and they didn’t need to ship all the CO2 that far.”

Keith Schneider, who founded the Michigan Land Use Institute in 1995, is director of communications for the Apollo Alliance Project. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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