Go Back, it's a Trap! On the Perils of Geologic Sequestration of CO2
Patrick A. Parenteau
Vermont Law School
May 27, 2009
Vermont Law School Research Paper No. 09-19
Does coal have a future in a carbon-constrained world? The fate of the planet hinges on the answer to that question. We know that coal is a cheap, abundant fuel that provides nearly half of the nation's electricity. And we know that coal plays an even larger role in powering development in the emerging economies of China and India. We also know that coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fuels; and that, cradle to grave, no other energy source comes close to matching the negative impact that coal has on public health and safety, not to mention ecosystems and environmental quality in general.
Conventional wisdom holds that, like it or not, coal is here to stay and we must find ways of making it "cleaner" and more "climate-friendly." There are technologies to burn coal more efficiently and with less harmful emissions of conventional and hazardous air pollutants; but as yet there is no demonstrated technology to deal with CO2. The proposed solution is "carbon capture and sequestration" (CCS) involving a three-step process to capture and condense the CO2 at the plant, transport it via pipeline to a suitable site, and inject it deep underground where, it is hoped, it will remain sequestered forever. The type of CCS system that would be needed for this does not exist anywhere in the world today, and it could take decades to reach commercial scale deployment. There are a host of technical, legal, regulatory, economic and public acceptance obstacles to overcome before such a system was operational; in fact the protocols for monitoring, measuring and verifying the performance of CO2 sequestration projects have yet to be established. Nevertheless, CCS is widely viewed as an indispensable element of any climate mitigation strategy, domestic or international.
This paper argues that CCS is too risky and too expensive to serve as a principal climate mitigation strategy, and that the nation and the world (including developing countries) would be far better off committing capital and brainpower to efforts aimed at reducing electricity demand through enhanced energy efficiency and in bringing clean, renewable sources of energy online through infrastructure investments in smart grids, smart meters, plug-in hybrids and the like. I argue that the "all of the above" strategy promoted by some is counter-productive and will actually impede progress towards de-carbonizing the energy sector.
Finally, the paper confronts the ethical question of whether, even assuming that the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of CCS could be demonstrated at scale, it represents the right choice for the United States. In other words, can the life cycle impacts of coal -- from the devastation of Appalachia by "mountain removal" to the mercury contamination of virtually every major waterway to the contamination of groundwater by combustion wastes -- justify continued reliance on coal throughout this century? Coal plants must operate for decades, so decisions made today are for all practical purposes irreversible. Granted, China and India are facing different circumstances and for them and the rest of the world CCS may be the only hope there is to prevent runaway climate change. For that reason it does make sense to continue to pursue R&D projects and technology-transfer agreements on a bilateral or multi-lateral basis. But the U.S. has a more important role to play in showing the world how to wean itself from the fossil-fuel addiction. The best way to sequester carbon form cola is to leave it in the ground.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 55
Keywords: CO2, carbon capture and sequestration, CCS, Coal Power Plants
Date posted: May 27, 2009