Fossil Fuel’s last stand

Action against CO2 Storage in Hannover. 09/13/2011 © Michael Loewa / Greenpeace

The struggle to remain relevant can be a tough one. For the fossil fuel industry, remaining relevant can mean stacks of money and political clout, or, staring into the darkness of very empty pockets.

In the face of growing divestment movements, the blossoming of energy independence because of renewable energy and general disgust towards how recklessly the industry treats the planet, the fossil fuel companies have been asking, how can they still burn carbon and keep themselves from the abyss?

The coal industry in particular is teetering on the brink. For them, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Enter, carbon capture storage (CCS), their most wistful and costly greenwashing exercise to date.

What is CCS?

As the carbon capture and storage association puts it, “(CCS) is a technology that can capture up to 90% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced from the use of fossil fuels in electricity generation and industrial processes, preventing the carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.”

Sounds lovely, but what they don’t mention is the staggeringly high cost which is not even justified if you take the captured carbon and pump it into the ground to suck oil out. Using gas to get difficult-to-extract oil is aspirationally known as “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR) but all it means is that the climate will still be under siege, but by burning oil instead of coal.

This is exactly the case with CCS showcase project, Boundary Dam in Canada. The project is brought to you by SaskPower and it’s publically funded to the tune of at least US$ 240 million. As Greenpeace Canada climate campaigner, Keith Stewart, puts it, “The captured gas will be used to push out what would otherwise be unrecoverable oil. So this project ends up being a huge public subsidy to oil companies to extract and sell oil that would have been left in the ground, and to continue to accelerate global warming.”

Boundary Dam is one of 10 CCS projects in the works globally – out of the total of 13 – where CCS is being used with enhanced oil recovery.

Logic appears to prevail when logic is used. Kevin Bullis, reporting on Massachusettes Institute of Technology findings, said, “The potential of carbon capture is limited. Carbon capture and storage will never be able to accommodate all of the carbon dioxide we emit now.”

He adds that, “Capturing and storing carbon dioxide will always make electricity more expensive. It will always be cheaper just to let the carbon dioxide escape into the atmosphere.”

Oxford University has been looking at CCS, and last week they released a report which concluded that while CCS is, “very unlikely to alter the sheer scale of mitigation required between now and 2050.”

Possibly the US Energy Department has been listening to MIT and Oxford, because last week they pulled US$ 1 billion from FutureGen’s CCS project in Illinois, sending them underground much in the way the company was going to try to do the same thing with carbon emitted from a coal power plant.

From a practical point of view MIT, Oxford and the US Energy Department’s conclusions are a no-brainer. CCS storage does almost nothing to limit carbon emissions, and it does almost nothing while bilking taxpayers out of millions of their dollars.

In the face of blatantly oxymoronic terms like “clean coal”, cooler, practical heads must prevail.

Coal is on its way out, and CCS is a tattered line meant to pull the industry from the yawning hole it’s balanced over. Countries like China – the world’s biggest coal consumer – have curbed their coal use and are showing none of the devastation the coal companies’ PR agencies have been howling about.

They need to howl, because the industry is investing in 1400 new coal plants. With scientists and intelligent policy-makers finally seeing eye-to-eye on how much carbon needs to stay in the ground, that’s a whole lot of wasted investment.

Renewable is the future. As Stewart puts it, “We need to move away from using fossil fuels, not pour more public money into extending their lifespan. Wind and solar power are already bigger, better and more economical options for meeting our energy needs than CCS.”

The coal industry is a relic from the industrial age and it is about to fall into the abyss. The breeze from the exponentially growing number of wind-turbines will send it over the edge while the reflection of the sun across fields of solar panels will light its way down.

Let’s help it along, shall we?

Arin de Hoog is the interim head of news at Greenpeace International.

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