Pioneering coal plant with CCS isn’t viable, admits CEO

The Kemper County project. Credit: Wikipedia

A new report by Greenpeace Energy Desk reveals that one of the US’s premier coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration plants, the Kemper County Energy Facility, is not economically viable.

The project, located in Kemper County, Mississippi, received hundreds of millions in public subsidies, promising to produce syngas through a new gasification technique in addition to utilizing waste CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) in nearby oil fields.

However, after spending $7.1 billion on the project, Kemper’s parent company is throwing in the towel on generating electricity from coal, switching instead to cheap natural gas without any carbon capture.

The Kemper County project would have been the world’s first Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power plant with CCS, and was touted by industry as a pioneer for burning coal or biomass with carbon capture.

Instead, it’s become a massive, expensive failure, and an emblem of injustice – with Mississippi ratepayers potentially on the hook for up to $7 billion in cost overruns from the project.

This is big news, given that IGCC with CCS has long been promoted as the state of the art concept for CCS, including BECCS. It would have a much better energy balance than post-combustion CCS, and be the cleanest form of coal or biomass combustion possible, if it worked.

Which, of course, it doesn’t. Our takeaway is that for anyone interested in the future of CCS, the failure of Kemper County should be much bigger news than whatever may or may not happen with the Texas-based Petra Nova coal CCS plant in the future.


Net Zero is not Zero: Inside the G7’s dystopian decarbonization scheme

by Dru Oja Jay

The world’s only CCS facility is a backdoor subsidy for oil extraction.

Last week in Germany the “Group of 7” countries (Canada, Japan, USA, Germany, United Kingdom, France, and Italy) declared that “deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required with a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century.” Many interpreted this as a call to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century.

This interpretation deserves a closer look.

In response to the announcement, Greenpeace warned that “G7 leaders have left the door open for high risk technologies, like nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage.” Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, is at the core of a push to achieve “net-zero” emissions. Net zero emissions is different from actual zero emissions because it allows burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon, as long as the carbon is eventually sucked out of the air.

The Carbon Brief explains:

The G7 language on decarbonisation this century is not specific, however, and does not promise an end to the use of coal or other fossil fuels. Instead, the language could imply reaching net-zero, where any remaining emissions are balanced by sequestration through afforestation or negative emissions technologies.

The most likely method of achieving negative emissions, biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), is controversial because it might require very large areas of land to be set aside for fast-growing trees or other biomass crops.

The G7 “commit to” develop and deploy “innovative technologies striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050”. The communique doesn’t explain which technologies would be considered “innovative”. However, the use of the plural term “energy sectors” perhaps points past electricity generation towards transport, heat and beyond.

[Emphasis added]

The G7 energy ministers’ meeting in Hamburg was more specific in its communiqué:

We recognize that fossil fuels will remain an important part in the energy mix for some time, as we progressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our energy systems. In this context, we encourage countries which opt to make use of carbon capture, use and storage to collaborate on large-scale demonstration projects and countries which opt to develop and use shale gas and other unconventional resources to collaborate on safe and responsible development.

It’s as close to an endorsement of CCS as they could get, and leaves little doubt about what the G7 considers “innovative”. Meanwhile, business leaders like Richard Branson have lined up behind “net zero,” conflating it with a decrease in the use of fossil fuels. They are joined by influential economist Jeffrey Sachs and the World Bank, among others.

Will Carbon Capture and Storage allow us keep burning fossil fuels?

The IPCC’s current scenarios rely heavily on Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and CCS, which have been called “unicorn technologies“. BECCS involves generating power by growing massive amounts of biomass, then burning it in power plants that capture the carbon at the smokestack and store it underground. Theoretically, this technique would remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

A few days earlier, ActionAid released a damning report about this version of “net zero,” declaring that:

Adding “net” to a goal of “zero emissions” may prove to be a trap that delays real climate action, and which could drive devastating land grabs and hunger through the large-scale use of land, biofuels and biomass to absorb rising carbon dioxide emissions. Instead of requiring real emissions cuts, “net” counting could allow for business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions, offset by massive-scale mitigation through the land sector.

The IPCC’s own “net zero” scenarios, the report explains, would require between 500 million and 6 billion hectares of land to keep climate emissions from heating the earth by more than 2 degrees. For comparison purposes, the total area of India is 328 million hectares.

But even if the large-scale dispossession required to suck billions of tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere went forward, BECCS strategies probably won’t work. As Rachel Smolker explains, BECCS will likely cause additional emissions through fertilizer use and land disturbances. And long-term storage of tens of billions of tonnes of CO2 creates major dangers:

[O]ur current understanding of earth history, plate tectonics and earthquakes tells us that assuming long term CO2 storage would be foolish. CO2 is not only a danger to climate, but in concentrated form, it is a lethal poison. Any abrupt release of concentrated CO2 could have serious impacts on those exposed, as well as contributing a sudden spike of CO2 to climate. Multiple small leaks also pose risks. They can occur at many points from capture process to compression to pipeline transport to injection, separation and reinjection and storage site leaks. […] Experience with the wrongful claims made by the nuclear industry (Chernobyl, Fukushima etc.) or by the oil industry (Deep Horizon) should serve as clear lessons: Relying on industry claims about safety and reliability is unwise. Precaution is very highly advised!

Even worse, the carbon that is captured will likely end up being used in “Enhanced Oil Recovery” techniques, which pump carbon into exhausted oil wells to extract even more oil.

Indeed, the only operational CCS plant in the world, in Saskatchewan, has been selling its carbon to an Alberta oil company. Because CCS is extremely expensive, the plant has been subsidized with $2 billion from the people of Saskatchewan. So effectively, the first and only example of CCS we have turns out to be a “backdoor subsidy to oil producers” for extraction that may not have been possible otherwise.

With critics like these, who needs supporters?

Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, published some sharp criticism of the G7’s pledge. The Canadian government’s attempts to water down the G7’s statement was “shameful,” said climate scientist David Keith. What the report didn’t mention is that Keith is a prominent geoengineering proponent and carbon capture entrepreneur.

No surprise then, that this critic of the G7 pushes in the same direction as the G7’s own statements. “If you want a stable climate, we have to get to net zero emissions. For a government to try and avoid such a statement, is really a shame.” [Emphasis added]

In the lead up to Paris, we’re likely to see more of this false conflict: foot-dragging governments vs. proponents of faster implementation of “net zero”. What’s left out is the need to phase out fossil fuels altogether, a task the G7 governments have shunned for the last two decades.

The portrayal of status quo vs. net zero as the main conflict plays into the hands of the big oil companies, which want to protect trillions of dollars of investments and subsidies and to keep extracting oil until it’s gone. Basic facts about net zero are missing: namely, that it is an epic land-grabbing disaster for the global south that would drive global hunger and almost certainly won’t work as advertised.

As Paris draws closer, it will become crucial to establish that despite many claims to the contrary, “net zero” is not zero, and actual reductions in fossil fuel extraction and use are required. “Net zero” is a well-packaged excuse to keep pumping oil out of the ground while relying on hypothetical, unproven or nonexistent technologies to save us.

Turns out the world’s first “clean coal” plant is a backdoor subsidy to oil producers

by David Roberts (Grist)

The world’s first “clean coal” plant — that is, the first full-size coal-fired power plant ever to capture and store the majority of its CO2 emissions — is located in, of all places, Saskatchewan. (They should change the name to “Of All Places, Saskatchewan.”) According to the first financial analysis done on the project, it appears to be functioning primarily as a public subsidy to the province’s aging oil industry.This takes a little explanation. First some quick background on the project.

The Boundary Dam Power Station, located just north of the North Dakota border, is the province’s oldest and largest coal-fired power plant. Its first boiler was commissioned in 1959. Boilers have been added and decommissioned over the years; there are now six, four of which are active. It is owned and run by SaskPower, the province’s principal utility. (A vertically integrated monopoly utility, for those keeping score at home.)

In 2008, the provincial government announced the Boundary Dam CCS project, whereby one of the station’s boilers (No. 3) would be replaced with a modern 160-megawatt boiler and coupled with a facility that would capture and store up to 90 percent of the boiler’s CO2 emissions. Seven years later, in 2014, boiler No. 3 began operations, representing the world’s first full-scale coal CCS project.

The captured carbon dioxide is compressed into liquid form and transported via pipeline. Most of it goes northwest to the aging Weyburn oil field, privately owned by Alberta-based Cenovus Energy, where it is used in “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR), boosting oil production.

The carbon-capture plant. SaskPower CCS

The same facility that strips carbon dioxide from the boiler’s flue gas also captures sulfur dioxide (which it condenses into sulfuric acid to sell for industrial use) and scrubs out NOx. Fly ash from coal combustion is also captured and sold for industrial use. It’s about as good as you can get for a coal plant, environmentally speaking.

Anyhow. In the run-up to its opening, the project got a lot of press — The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Economist, etc. — but most of it was based on what the plant was expected to do, according to SaskPower.

A few days ago, the first financial analysis of the plant’s actual operations was released. It is not flattering.

Just to be up front: The report is written by a wind guy, James Glennie. He’s got long experience as a financial analyst in the energy industry, MBA, CFA, all that, but he is involved in trying to get wind projects off the ground in Saskatchewan. Just so you know. That said, the report is exhaustively detailed and referenced, and I do mean exhaustively, so do jump in if you’re suspicious of my summary. And as Glennie says, “Critics of our conclusions might well ask themselves why, given the sizeable spend of public funds on this initiative, the proponents have not already shared their own detailed project justifications.”

Here are some numbers from Glennie’s report. (All dollar figures are expressed in net-present-value terms, and in Canadian dollars.)

The project — heretofore known as BD3CCS, for Boundary Dam Boiler No. 3 Carbon Capture and Sequestration — was initially forecast to cost $1.2 billion but ended up costing $1.47 billion. Of that, the Canadian federal government contributed $240 million. The remaining $1.23 billion was paid by SaskPower customers. Of the total, the new boiler cost $550 million and the CCS facility cost $917 million.

Over the 30-year life of the plant, in terms of cash flow, the boiler itself nets out at a $391 million profit — that’s total revenue from power sold minus the initial investment and operation and maintenance costs.

Over the same 30 years, the neighboring CCS facility will generate $713 million in revenue from the sale of CO2 and sulfuric acid. If you then subtract the initial investment, operation and maintenance costs, and the costs of “parasitic load” (the electricity required to run the CCS facility, which is almost 25 percent of the power plant’s output), the CCS facility nets out at a $1,042 million loss. Note that even if capital costs were zero, the CCS facility would still generate negative Earnings Before Interest Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization (EBITDA).

Subtract that $391 million profit from the boiler from the $1,042 million loss from the CCS facility and you get a $651 million net financial loss for SaskPower customers from BD3CCS.

In other news, SaskPower recently asked regulators for a 5 percent bump in rates in 2015 and another 5 percent in 2016. And they got it.

Now, here are some interesting numbers for the Weyburn Consortium (headed by Cenovus Energy), which owns the Weyburn oil field.

Over the 30-year life of BD3CCS, the consortium will invest $2,025 million in their EOR project. They will incur $1,313 in operation and maintenance costs, pay $690 million for CO2 from BD3CCS, and pay $900 million in royalties to the Saskatchewan government. On the other side of the ledger, they will make $6,750 million in revenue from crude oil sales.

That nets out to a $1,823 million profit. Pretty sweet deal! Especially since the consortium’s current contract for CO2, from North Dakota, expires this year. And especially since EOR is the only thing keeping Weyburn going — and is expected to keep it going for 30 more years.


How about the CO2? SaskPower has not released any actual performance numbers, so here are Glennie’s estimates based on various public sources of information:

BD3CCS will capture 30-million tonnes of CO2 [roughly 90 percent of its CO2 emissions]; 3.3-million tonnes will, however, be lost in the capture process and 9-million tonnes will be lost during processing of the CO2/crude mix recovered from the Weyburn oil field. Consequently a net amount of only 17.7 million tonnes is permanently sequestered and that at a cost of $100/tonne of sequestered CO2.

It’s effectively a very high carbon tax, charged only to SaskPower’s captive customers, with the revenue used to produce more fossil fuels. Maybe not the best mitigation strategy.

SaskPower boasts that BD3CCS represents the equivalent of “taking 250,000 cars off the road.” What it fails to note is that SaskPower put the cars on the road in the first place (er, metaphorically). It is solving, or almost solving, a problem that it is creating.

Why not build a power plant that doesn’t put any of those metaphorical cars on the road in the first place? Then you wouldn’t have to charge customers a billion dollars to remove them those cars. Why not, say, wind power?

There’s a whole section of the report devoted to that. It’s extensive, but in a nutshell: over the same 30-year time frame, SaskPower could produce the same 757 gigawatt-hours of clean electricity with wind power at a capital cost of $450 million. That’s about a billion dollars less than BD3CCS — a billion in direct savings for SaskPower customers. “Since operating wind turbines emit no CO2,” Glennie notes, “they would achieve this at a cost of $0/tonne of avoided CO2.”

But despite its plentiful wind resource — it’s a plains province — Saskatchewan gets just 3 percent of its electricity from wind, next to last among Canadian provinces:

saskwind-canadian-provinces-wind-energy (1)

That represents virtually no progress over the last decade:



And that helps explain why Saskatchewan has the highest power-sector carbon emissions of any Canadian province:


Yet still, the SaskPower guys are fixated on continuing to burn coal.

So, to summarize: The utility gets to keep its coal plants running, cling to its old, familiar centralized-power model, and raise rates. The province’s coal producers get to keep producing coal. The province’s oil producers get to keep their aging oil field running and, as a bonus, receive an almost $2 billion subsidy from SaskPower customers over 30 years. The Saskatchewan government receives almost a billion in oil royalties.

Everybody wins! Except electricity customers in Saskatchewan. They get fleeced.

So why build this project at all, or the next two, BD4CCS and BD5CCS, which SaskPower is now contemplating? The noble headline is that Saskatchewan wants to selflessly help pioneer a technology that many people think will be crucial to deep carbon reductions.

The more plausible story begins with the fact that the Canadian federal government passed some seriously strict anti-coal regulations a few years ago:

Under the new rules, companies will not be able to commence construction of a new coal-fired power plant after July 1, 2015, unless it is equipped with carbon-capture and storage (CCS) technology that would bring greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) down to a level of high-efficiency gas plants.

Companies would also have to close plants built before 1975 by the year 2020, and any plant built after 1975 would have to close by 2030, unless equipped with CCS.

That means unless SaskPower outfits the boilers of the Boundary Dam station with CCS, they have to shut down by 2020. Stranded assets — utilities no likey. Saskatchewan has large coal reserves and the folks at SaskPower are keen to burn them. Like every vertically integrated monopoly utility, it has long been sheltered from competition, so it’s not exactly a bastion of cutting-edge thinking.

And on that note, Glennie concludes his report with some recommendations for power sector reform in Saskatchewan, basically a form of restructuring in which the utility would retain monopoly control over the grid and customer care, but power generation would become a competitive market overseen by an government agency (an ISO, or independent system operator).

That would be a great start. If Saskatchewan really wanted utility reform, it could even be even more ambitious. But Glennie’s probably right that as long as the current model persists, the old thinking that accrued around it will persist and coal will get burned no matter the cost.

I know some CCS backers view this as an acceptable cost. The first one’s got to be built somewhere and the next CCS facility will, it’s true, be cheaper. But those who bear the cost should do so knowingly, through transparent democratic choice and coherent climate policy. There’s no sense dumping the costs in, of all places, Saskatchewan.

From the Concorde to Sci-Fi Climate Solutions

by Almuth Ernsting (Truthout)

The interior of the Concorde aircraft at the Scotland Museum of Flight. (Photo: Magnus Hagdorn)

Touting “sci-fi climate solutions” – untested technologies not really scalable to the dimensions of our climate change crisis – dangerously delays the day when we actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week, I took my son to Scotland’s Museum of Flight. Its proudest exhibit: a Concorde. To me, it looked stunningly futuristic. “How old,” remarked my son, looking at the confusing array of pre-digital controls in the cockpit. Watching the accompanying video – “Past Dreams of the Future” – it occurred to me that the story of the Concorde stands as a symbol for two of the biggest obstacles to addressing climate change.

The Concorde must rank among the most wasteful ways of guzzling fossil fuels ever invented. No other form of transport is as destructive to the climate as aviation – yet the Concorde burned almost five times as much fuel per person per mile as a standard aircraft. Moreover, by emitting pollutants straight into the lower stratosphere, the Concorde contributed to ozone depletion. At the time of the Concorde’s first test flight in 1969, little was known about climate change and the ozone hole had not yet been discovered. Yet by the time the Concorde was grounded – for purely economic reasons – in 2003, concerns about its impact on the ozone layer had been voiced for 32 years and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) first report had been published for 13 years.

The Concorde’s history illustrates how the elites will stop at nothing when pursuing their interests or desires. No damage to the atmosphere and no level of noise-induced misery to those living under Concorde flight paths were treated as bad enough to warrant depriving the richest of a glamorous toy.

If this first “climate change lesson” from the Concorde seems depressing, the second will be even less comfortable for many.

Back in 1969, the UK’s technology minister marveled at Concorde’s promises: “It’ll change the shape of the world; it’ll shrink the globe by half . . . It replaces in one step the entire progress made in aviation since the Wright Brothers in 1903.”

Few would have believed at that time that, from 2003, no commercial flight would reach even half the speed that had been achieved back in the 1970s.

The Concorde remained as fast – yet as inefficient and uneconomical – as it had been from its commercial inauguration in 1976 – despite vast amounts of public and industry investment. The term “Concorde fallacy” entered British dictionaries: “The idea that you should continue to spend money on a project, product, etc. in order not to waste the money or effort you have already put into it, which may lead to bad decisions.”

The lessons for those who believe in overcoming climate change through technological progress are sobering: It’s not written in the stars that every technology dreamed up can be realized, nor that, with enough time and money, every technical problem will be overcome and that, over time, every new technology will become better, more efficient and more affordable.

Yet precisely such faith in technological progress informs mainstream responses to climate change, including the response by the IPCC. At a conference last autumn, I listened to a lead author of the IPCC’s latest assessment report. His presentation began with a depressing summary of the escalating climate crisis and the massive rise in energy use and carbon emissions, clearly correlated with economic growth. His conclusion was highly optimistic: Provided we make the right choices, technological progress offers a future with zero-carbon energy for all, with ever greater prosperity and no need for economic growth to end. This, he illustrated with some drawings of what we might expect by 2050: super-grids connecting abundant nuclear and renewable energy sources across continents, new forms of mass transport (perhaps modeled on Japan’s magnetic levitation trains), new forms of aircraft (curiously reminiscent of the Concorde) and completely sustainable cars (which looked like robots on wheels). The last and most obscure drawing in his presentation was unfinished, to remind us that future technological progress is beyond our capacity to imagine; the speaker suggested it might be a printer printing itself in a new era of self-replicating machines.

These may represent the fantasies of just one of many lead authors of the IPCC’s recent report. But the IPCC’s 2014 mitigation report itself relies on a large range of techno-fixes, many of which are a long way from being technically, let alone commercially, viable. Climate justice campaigners have condemned the IPCC’s support for “false solutions” to climate change. But the term “false solutions” does not distinguish between techno-fixes that are real and scalable, albeit harmful and counterproductive on the one hand, and those that remain in the realm of science fiction, or threaten to turn into another “Concorde fallacy,” i.e. to keep guzzling public funds with no credible prospect of ever becoming truly viable. Let’s call the latter “sci-fi solutions.”

The most prominent, though by no means only, sci-fi solution espoused by the IPCC is BECCS – bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. According to their recent report, the vast majority of “pathways” or models for keeping temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius rely on “negative emissions.” Although the report included words of caution, pointing out that such technologies are “uncertain” and “associated with challenges and risks,” the conclusion is quite clear: Either carbon capture and storage, including BECCS, is introduced on a very large scale, or the chances of keeping global warming within 2 degrees Celsius are minimal. In the meantime, the IPCC’s chair, Rajendra Pachauri, and the co-chair of the panel’s Working Group on Climate Change Mitigation, Ottmar Edenhofer, publicly advocate BECCS without any notes of caution about uncertainties – referring to it as a proven way of reducing carbon dioxide levels and thus global warming. Not surprisingly therefore, BECCS has even entered the UN climate change negotiations. The recent text, agreed at the Lima climate conference in December 2014 (“Lima Call for Action”), introduces the terms “net zero emissions” and “negative emissions,” i.e. the idea that we can reliably suck large amounts of carbon (those already emitted from burning fossil fuels) out of the atmosphere. Although BECCS is not explicitly mentioned in the Lima Call for Action, the wording implies support for it because it is treated as the key “negative emissions” technology by the IPCC.

If BECCS were to be applied at a large scale in the future, then we would have every reason to be alarmed. According to a scientific review, attempting to capture 1 billion tons of carbon through BECCS (far less than many of the “pathways” considered by the IPCC presume) would require 218 to 990 million hectares of switchgrass plantations (or similar scale plantations of other feedstocks, including trees), 1.6 to 7.4 trillion cubic meters of water a year, and 75 percent more than all the nitrogen fertilizers used worldwide (which currently stands at 1 billion tons according to the “conservative” estimates in many studies). By comparison, just 30 million hectares of land worldwide have been converted to grow feedstock for liquid biofuels so far. Yet biofuels have already become the main cause of accelerated growth in demand for vegetable oils and cereals, triggering huge volatility and rises in the price of wood worldwide. And by pushing up palm oil prices, biofuels have driven faster deforestation across Southeast Asia and increasingly in Africa. As a result of the ethanol boom, more than 6 million hectares of US land has been planted with corn, causing prairies and wetlands to be plowed up. This destruction of ecosystems, coupled with the greenhouse gas intensive use of fertilizers, means that biofuels overall are almost certainly worse for the climate than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace. There are no reasons to believe that the impacts of BECCS would be any more benign. And they would be on a much larger scale.

Capturing carbon takes a lot of energy, hence CCS requires around one-third more fuel to be burned to generate the same amount of energy. And sequestering captured carbon is a highly uncertain business. So far, there have been three large-scale carbon sequestration experiments. The longest-standing of these, the Sleipner field carbon sequestration trial in the North Sea, has been cited as proof that carbon dioxide can be sequestered reliably under the seabed. Yet in 2013, unexpected scars and fractures were found in the reservoir and a lead researcher concluded: “We are saying it is very likely something will come out in the end.” Another one of the supposedly “successful,” if much shorter, trials also raised “interesting questions,” according to the researchers: Carbon dioxide migrated further upward in the reservoir than predicted, most likely because injecting the carbon dioxide caused fractures in the cap rock.

There are thus good reasons to be alarmed about the prospect of large-scale bioenergy with CCS. Yet BECCS isn’t for real.

While the IPCC and world leaders conclude that we really need to use carbon capture and storage, including biomass, here’s what is actually happening: The Norwegian government, once proud of being a global pioneer of CCS, has pulled the plug on the country’s first full-scale CCS project after a scathing report from a public auditor. The Swedish state-owned energy company Vattenfall has shut down its CCS demonstration plant in Germany, the only plant worldwide testing a particular and supposedly promising carbon capture technology. The government of Alberta has dropped its previously enthusiastic support for CCS because it no longer sees it as economically viable.

True, 2014 has seen the opening of the world’s largest CCS power station, after SaskPower retrofitted one unit of their Boundary Dam coal power station in Saskatchewan to capture carbon dioxide. But Boundary Dam hardly confirms the techno-optimist’s hopes. The 100-megawatt unit costs approximately $1.4 billion to build – more than twice the cost of a much larger (non-CCS) 400-megawatt gas power station built by SaskPower in 2009. It became viable thanks only to public subsidies and to a contract with the oil company Cenovus, which agreed to buy the carbon dioxide for the next decade in order to inject it into an oil well to facilitate extraction of more hard to reach oil – a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The supposed “carbon dioxide savings” predictably ignore all of the carbon dioxide emissions from burning that oil. But even with such a nearby oil field suitable for EOR, SaskPower had to make the plant far smaller than originally planned so as to avoid capturing more carbon dioxide than they could sell.

If CCS with fossil fuels is reminiscent of the Concorde fallacy, large-scale BECCS is entirely in the realm of science fiction. The supposedly most “promising technology”has never been tested in a biomass power plant and that has so far provenuneconomical with coal. Add to that the fact that biomass power plants need more feedstock and are less efficient and more expensive to run than coal power plants, and a massive-scale BECCS program becomes even more implausible. And then add to that the question of scale: Sequestering 1 billion tons of carbon a year would produce a volume of highly pressurized liquid carbon dioxide larger than the global volume of oil extracted annually. It would require governments and/or companies stumping up the money to build an infrastructure larger than that of the entire global oil industry – without any proven benefit.

This doesn’t mean that we won’t see any little BECCS projects in niche circumstances. One of these already exists: ADM is capturing carbon dioxide from ethanol fermentation in one of its refineries for use in CCS research. Capturing carbon dioxide from ethanol fermentation is relatively simple and cheap. If there happens to be some half-depleted nearby oil field suitable for enhanced oil recovery, some ethanol “CCS” projects could pop up here and there. But this has little to do with a “billion ton negative emissions” vision.

BECCS thus appears as one, albeit a particularly prominent, example of baseless techno-optimism leading to dangerous policy choices. Dangerous, that is, because hype about sci-fi solutions becomes a cover for the failure to curb fossil fuel burning and ecosystem destruction today.

The Myth of Net-Zero Emissions

BERLIN – The emissions from burning coal, oil, and gas are heating up our planet at such a rapid rate that increasingly volatile and dangerous climate conditions seem almost inevitable. Clearly, we have to reduce emissions fast, while developing alternative energy sources that allow us to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

This imperative is almost shockingly straightforward. Yet climate change has been subject to so much political inertia, false information, and wishful thinking for the last few decades that we continue to see ineffective or impossible solutions, rather than an effort to address root causes. Often these “solutions” are based on non-existent or risky new technologies.

 This approach is highly expedient, for it threatens neither business as usual nor socioeconomic orthodoxy. But climate models that depend on elusive technologies weaken the imperative to enact the deep structural changes that are needed to avoid climate catastrophe.

The latest such “solution” to emerge is “net-zero emissions,” which depends on so-called “carbon capture and storage.” Though the technology still faces more than a few shortcomings, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Chairman Rajendar Pachauri issued a deeply problematic statement last month, saying that, “With CCS it is entirely possible for fossil fuels to continue to be used on a large scale.”

To be fair, the IPCC’s latest assessment report highlights the imperative of cutting CO2 emissions drastically to avoid exceeding the world’s small – and still risky – carbon budget. But to shift from clear-cut goals like “zero emissions,” “full decarbonization,” and “100% renewable energy” to the far hazier objective of net-zero emissions is to adopt a dangerous stance.

Indeed, the net-zero idea implies that the world can continue to produce emissions, as long as there is a way to “offset” them. So, instead of embarking immediately on a radical emissions-reduction trajectory, we can continue to emit massive amounts of CO2 – and even establish new coal plants – while claiming to be taking climate action by “supporting” the development of CCS technology. It is apparently irrelevant that such technology might not work, is riddled with practical challenges, and carries the risk of future leakage, which would have major social and environmental consequences.

Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage is the poster child for the new “overshoot approach” of net-zero emissions. BECCS entails planting a huge amount of grass and trees, burning the biomass to generate electricity, capturing the CO2 that is emitted, and pumping it into geological reservoirs underground.

BECCS would have enormous development implications, provoking large-scale land grabs, most likely from relatively poor people. This is not some farfetched scenario; rising demand for biofuels has spurred devastating land grabs in developing countries for many years.

It would take a lot more land to offset a substantial share of CO2 emissions. Indeed, an estimated 218-990 million hectares would have to be converted to switchgrass to sequester one billion tons of carbon using BECCS. That is 14-65 times the amount of land the United States uses to grow corn for ethanol.

Nitrous-oxide emissions from the vast amount of fertilizer that would be required to grow the switchgrass could be enough to exacerbate climate change. Then there are the CO2 emissions from producing synthetic fertilizers; clearing trees, shrubs, and grass from hundreds of millions of hectares of land; destroying large reservoirs of soil carbon; and transporting and processing the switchgrass.

Even more problematic is the revelation that CCS and BECCS would most likely be used for “enhanced oil recovery,” with compressed CO2 pumped into old oil wells for storage, thereby creating a financial incentive to recover more oil. The US Department of Energy estimates that such methods could make 67 billion barrels of oil – three times the volume of proven US oil reserves – economically recoverable. Indeed, given the money at stake, enhanced oil recovery could actually be one of the motives behind the push for CCS.

In any case, no form of CCS advances the goal of a structural shift toward full decarbonization, which is what social movements, academics, ordinary citizens, and even some politicians are increasingly demanding. They are prepared to accept the inconveniences and sacrifices that will arise during the transition; indeed, they view the challenge of creating a zero-carbon economy as an opportunity to renew and improve their societies and communities. Dangerous, elusive, and pie-in-the-sky technologies have no place in such an effort.

A clear understanding of the climate crisis expands the range of potential solutions considerably. For example, by banning new coal plants and shifting fossil-fuel subsidies toward the financing of renewable energy through feed-in tariffs, sustainable energy could be brought to billions of people worldwide, while reducing fossil-fuel dependency.

While such innovative and practical solutions are prevented from being scaled up, billions of dollars are pumped into subsidies that reinforce the status quo. The only way to reform the system and make real progress toward mitigating climate change is to work to eliminate fossil fuels completely. Vague goals based on nebulous technologies simply will not work.

[This article was originally posted to Project Syndicate]

“Uncertainties” is an understatement when it comes to BECCS

[This article was originally posted to the Washington Geoengineering Consortium]

by Rachel Smolker

In 2012, Biofuelwatch published a report titled “Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage: Climate savior or dangerous hype?”  We had long been working to reveal and oppose large scale industrial and commercial scale bioenergy in various forms ranging from ethanol refineries to soy and palm oil biodiesel to coal plants converting over to burn wood. We had argued that corn ethanol would drive biodiversity loss, cause food prices to rise and contribute to chronic hunger, while failing to reduce emissions, as it has in fact done. We argued that burning wood as a substitute for coal would create a new driver of deforestation, even as protecting forests and ecosystems was recognized as a “best line of defense” against climate change. We pointed out that large scale bioenergy was incompatible with the simultaneous push to quantify, commodify and protect land based carbon sinks and their “services” (often for the dubious purpose of providing offsets to polluters…). We highlighted the human rights impacts, as land grabs for bioenergy escalated in Africa and elsewhere. And we argued over and over that the carbon consequences of bioenergy were far from “climate friendly” or “carbon neutral,” a myth that has been perpetuated by industry proponents and even parroted by many naive environmentalists.

When we learned that BECCS was being advocated as an approach to “mitigation,” we turned our attention to providing a critique based on many of those, by now familiar, arguments.  When BECCS spilled into the debates on climate geoengineering, we were outraged. Then even the supposedly scientific body, the IPCC released their Working Group III (Mitigation) Summary for Policymakers in April 2014, it stated that:  “Mitigation scenarios reaching about 450 ppm CO2eq in 2100 typically involve temporary overshoot of atmospheric concentrations as do many scenarios reaching about 500-550 ppm CO2 eq in 2100. Depending on the level of the overshoot, overshoot scenarios typically rely on the availability and widespread deployment of BECCS and afforestation in the second half of the century. The availability and scale of these and other Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies and methods are uncertain and CDR technologies and methods are, to varying degrees associated with challenges and risks (see Section SPM 4.2, high confidence).”  While they acknowledge “uncertainties,” they nonetheless incorporate BECCS into models as if its feasibility and effectiveness is a given.

In fact, “uncertainties” is an understatement. Over the years we have been making our arguments heard and fighting to oppose large scale bioenergy projects and policies, a burgeoning body of peer reviewed scientific literature has been published supporting and substantiating the concerns we raised, and public opinion has evolved and shifted. Witness for example how corn ethanol, the darling of big agribusiness, some farmers, the oil industry and many environmentalists – has fallen out of favor in public perception. Over the past few years the EPA has been lobbied by a diverse assortment of industry groups to repeal the ethanol mandate, and policymakers have supported that with introduction of legislation.

In Europe, policymakers have (at least) taken note of the evolving understanding of bioenergy, though that has not been reflected back on policy as of yet.  There have been drawn out debates over indirect land use change and “sustainability standards” in particular, with the European Commission and Council suggesting that biofuel targets should be eliminated from the next climate and energy package (after 2020).

Nonetheless, avid proponents of BECCS hold fast to the simplistic claim that it can provide a “fix” for the climate, even permitting “overshoot” – allowing greenhouse gas concentrations to rise above what is indicated for long term stabilization based on the assumption that the excess can later be “cleaned up”.

In a recent reality check, scientists estimated what it would take to sequester 1 billion tonnes of carbon using BECCS based on switchgrass feedstock. Their findings showed a startling 218-990 million hectares of land would have to be converted to switchgrass (which is 14-65 times as much land as the US uses to grow corn for ethanol); also 17-79 million tonnes of fertiliser a year – which would be 75% of all global nitrogen fertiliser used at present; and 1.6-7.4 trillion cubic metres of water a year.

Even if such a BECCS-project was to actually sequester a billion tonnes of carbon a year, the authors point out that the nitrous oxide emissions from the extra fertilizer use alone would, over the course of a century ‘offset’ 75-310% of that sequestered CO2. In other words: Increased fertilizer use alone would likely mean that either of those projects would increase greenhouse gas emissions overall and thus make climate change even worse. That does not even include the vast carbon emissions from clearing trees, shrubs and grass from hundreds of millions of hectares of land, destroying large reservoirs of soil carbon, or the emissions from all the fossil fuels burned to transport and process switchgrass. Nor does it include emissions from producing the synthetic fertilizers.

BECCS advocates also adhere to the simplistic notion that all bioenergy (from corn ethanol to burning wood) is “carbon neutral.” Therefore, it is argued, adding CCS further renders it “carbon negative”.  The “carbon neutral” claim has been refuted time and time again in scientific literature.  Timothy Searchinger was among the first to do so with a paper entitled “A Critical Climate Accounting Error“. Others have further elaborated on the carbon implications of various forms of bioenergy, from corn ethanol to crop residue cellulosic fuels to wood bioenergy. When full consideration is given, including impacts on soils, fertilizer use and both direct and indirect land use change, bioenergy processes are, in reality, far from “neutral”.

A case in point is wood bioenergy. Conversion of coal plants to burn wood, dedicated new-build wood burning power plants as well as combined heat and power and biomass boilers for heating are creating huge new demand for wood pellets. Wood burning is subsidized as renewable energy and also favored for use in dirty older coal plants that must meet new regulations on sulphur dioxide emissions.[1]  Hence large coal plants such as DRAX in the UK are converting to burn wood pellets. In the UK, these are largely imported from the southeastern USA.  While the energy industry claims to use only “wastes and residues”, those are clearly not abundantly available. Recent investigationof the largest pellet producer in the US, Enviva, revealed that they were sourcing wood from remaining pockets of endangered Atlantic coastal forests and then shipping them across the Atlantic to burn with coal.

Cutting trees to burn (or refine) for bioenergy can hardly be considered carbon neutral or climate friendly.[2] Though this would seem to be common sense, there are now many scientific studies showing that uncut forests (and their soils) store more carbonthan those that are disturbed and harvested[3], and continue to do so as they grow older, storing far more than fast rotation industrial tree plantations. Even ignoring the impacts on forests, harvest and transportation and looking only at the emissions coming from smokestacks, wood releases around 50% more CO2 per megawatt of electricity generation than coal!

If bioenergy is not carbon neutral, then it simply cannot be rendered carbon negative by adding CCS, even if captured carbon were securely stored away (which we will see below, is unlikely).

So the enthusiasm for BECCS and continued “carbon negative” rhetoric seems a bit puzzling.  Are proponents of BECCS just horrifically poor at math?  Or is there some other motive behind the ongoing support for a technology that appears entirely nonsensical and lacking credibility?  Perhaps BECCS supporters are scared stiff about the pace and scale of global climate change, understand that desperate measures are needed, and consider BECCS, in spite of shortcomings, to be “more benign” than other approaches such as sulphate particle injection into the stratosphere? That was certainly the overarching mood at the recent IASS conference on climate geoengineering in Potsdam, Germany.

Or perhaps there is something else going on?  Many climate “solutions” that are being offered to us are in fact those that large and powerful corporations such as the oil companies are willing to engage.  We have been hearing the term “clean coal” for decades now.  Why the persistence?

Here is one possibility: according to an analysis commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) there are large amounts of oil lying around in the difficult to access depths of previously depleted oil wells.  That oil could be accessed using “enhanced oil recovery”, which can be achieved by pumping compressed CO2 into those wells to force out the remaining difficult to access oil.[4]  They project that at least 137 billion barrels of oil could potentially be extracted, 67 billion barrels of which could be economically recoverable at a price of $85 a barrel.  That is three times the current U.S. proven reserves!

The National Energy Technology Laboratory “EOR Primer” states that “somewhere around 85 billion barrels of oil are recoverable using CO2 EOR, which currently is responsible for about 4 percent of U.S. oil production, displaying a long-term growth trend that stands in stark contrast to the long-term decline trend for U.S. oil production overall. Certainly, the volume of “stranded” oil left behind in U.S. reservoirs after conventional primary and second recovery techniques is massive—as much as two-thirds of all the oil discovered in the United States resides in this category.”[5]

In short, with oil reserves becoming more and more difficult to access and extract, EOR is becoming more and more attractive.

The US Chamber of Commerce recognizing this, states: “In terms of economic and energy security, this [EOR] means billions of dollars of new investment in the U.S. and production potential of 4 million barrels a day of oil for 50 years from existing US oil fields. The investment required would not just be in oil fields themselves but also in power plants, pipelines and other industries that capture CO2 from their industrial processes., The economic benefits will also flow to the state and federal governments with an estimated 1.4 trillion in new government revenues. In addition to the direct benefits to the U.S., the technology used to produce this additional oil will help maintain US leadership in oil production technology, creating opportunities around the world for U.S. companies.”[6]

What is needed to make these dreams of riches come true? Chamber of Commerce states:  “The challenge of realizing this potential is primarily the availability of CO2 at prices that support economic operations. This is also one of the opportunities since CO2 is emitted by power plants and many industrial processes.”  And the MidwesternGovernors Association, major advocates for CCS development state: “With unstable oil prices, commercially proven technology and know-how readily available and private capital waiting to invest, the MGA CCS Task Force aims to address the major remaining barrier to ramping up EOR: the lack of industrial sources of captured CO2 large enough and sufficiently long-term to justify private investment in pipelines and other infrastructure needed to expand EOR to additional fields.”

According to the National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative there is a market for somewhere around 20 billion metric tons of CO2.  The Natural Resources Defense Council (purportedly an environmental group!) offers that supplying adequate supplies of CO2 would require installation of between 69-109 gigawatts of coal and natural gas power plants equipped with carbon capture.[7] Indeed, what they are advocating for is construction of vast new fossil fueled power plant capacity as a way to provide cheap CO2 to facilitiate extraction of more oil.[8]

Somehow, many in industry, academics and policymaking as well as certain members of the public, have been convinced that this is a “solution” to the climate crisis.

Carbon capture is costly in part because it requires additional energy to capture and separate CO2 from a heterogeneous mix – as emerges from the stack of a coal combustion facility for example. Capturing the nearly pure stream of CO2 emitted from corn ethanol refinery fermentation processes is cheaper however, and footing the bill for the added costs associated with carbon capture can be further offset by taking advantage of the market for CO2 availed by EOR.

According to advocates from the Great Plains Institute, “Ethanol won’t be a large source of CO2 over time compared to power plants, but it will be an important one because it can be an early participant in providing CO2 to the oil industry—there really are no technological barriers whatsoever.”

A key question (assuming we even wanted to pursue it this far), is whether CO2 used for EOR, is “sequestered” or not?  Projects that employ EOR are after all, referred to as CCS – but is the “S” really happening? Or is the CO2 used for EOR just re-released into the atmosphere along with the carbon from yet more oil extraction?  Finding the answer to that question has not proven straightforward. One almost gets the sense there is deliberate obfuscation. In the EOR process, CO2 mixes with the oil, much like detergent mixes with grease when dishwashing. That expands the volume and forces the oil out. So once the oil/CO2 mixture has been extracted, presumably it must then be separated out again and perhaps then reinjected back into the well.  All of those added steps ust contribute  to costs and energy demands of the process. The term “Carbon Capture and Storage thus appears to be largely a misnomer and indeed the term “Carbon Capture and Utilization” is now coming into use along with terms such as “Negative Emissions”.

If CO2 is captured following EOR and re-injected into underground storage spaces, those wells would need to be capped and sealed to ensure no leakage.  The Chamber of Commerce states that “If CO2 sequestration for long term storage is planned for the site, then a monitoring plan is developed and implemented. Once monitoring demonstrates that CO2 has not migrated out of the rock formation over the near term (tens of years) then there can be great certainty that no migration will occur in the long term (hundreds or thousands of years).”  In other words: we don’t know, and we will leave it to future generations to deal with the consequences.

Common sense, informed by our current understanding of earth history, plate tectonics and earthquakes tells us that assuming long term CO2 storage would be foolish. CO2 is not only a danger to climate, but in concentrated form, it is a lethal poison. Any abrupt release of concentrated CO2 could have serious impacts on those exposed, as well as contributing a sudden spike of CO2 to climate. Multiple small leaks also pose risks. They can occur at many points from capture process to compression to pipeline transport to injection, separation and reinjection and storage site leaks.

Assuming long term storage of CO2 underground is foolhardy.  Experience with the wrongful claims made by the nuclear industry (Chernobyl, Fukushima etc.) or by the oil industry (Deep Horizon) should serve as clear lessons:  Relying on industry claims about safety and reliability is unwise. Precaution is very highly advised!

The underlying motive behind CCS remains  to perpetuate the ongoing use of fossil fuels. At the recent UN Climate Summit in New York City, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development released a bizarre animated portrayal of the city buried under endless floods of oil. Their conclusion to the problem of such gluttonous and ongoing oil consumption: a carbon tax with the proceeds directed to developing “carbon capture and utilization” (EOR).

Concerns aside, what experience do we have with CCS? The coal industry has been proclaiming the potential for “clean coal” in spite of virtually no existing practice, for decades. Yet CCS remains very expensive, largely nonexistent and where it does exist, “storage” remains a misnomer.

A “groundbreaking” was just held for the Petra Nova facility in Texas, slated to be the “world’s largest”. This facility will use captured CO2 for EOR in the nearby Hilcorp owned West Ranch oil field, where oil extraction is to be increased from 500 to 15,000 barrels per day. In news interviews, CEO of partner company JX “insisted” that some of the Co2 would be permanently sequestered and thus the project “does tackle climate change to some extent.”

The $1.3 billion dollar SaskPower Boundary Dam Power Station CCS project recently started operation – the first post combustion coal plant fitted with CCS. The project is proclaimed as “making a viable technical, economic and environmental case for the continued use of coal.” Further they claim to provide a “90% greenhouse gas reduction…the equivalent of taking more than 250,000 cars off the road annually.”  And yet the facility will sell the majority of captured CO2 to Cenovus for EOR. Emissions from the additional oil extraction are invisible in the hype surrounding the facility opening.

The notorious “FutureGen” CCS project in Illinois was initially funded in 2003 under the Bush administration, then cancelled due to high costs and a legal challenge. It was recently granted a new lease on life with $1 billion in DOE funding yet still remains far from operational.

In Kemper County Mississippi, a coal CCS project  was initially projected to cost 2.4 billion and to date estimates have risen to 5.4 billion and rising. Again, the captured CO2 is to be used for EOR at nearby Denbury Resources owned wells. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report: “The only thing the Kemper power plant is burning now is money. The plant has suffered almost every kind of cost overrun, beset by bad weather, labor costs, shortages and “inconsistent” quality of equipment and materials, and contractor and supplier delays.”

The AEP owned Mountaineer Plant, a coal burning facility in West Virginia was put on hold due to excessive costs.

And, the contentious Duke Energy coal gasification facility in Edwardsport Indiana was reportedly using more energy than it produced even after massive cost overuns and ratepayer outrage. THe Sierra Club refers to this project as “A monument to cost overuns, concealment and malfeasance.”

Capturing CO2 streams from natural gas extraction processes has been demonstrated (Sleipner and elsewhere) But even that has been frought with difficulties.  A much touted plan to capture CO2 from the Mongstad facility in Norway was recentlyabandoned after monumental cost overuns.

The largest bioenergy project with CCS by far involves a corn ethanol refinery owned by Archer Daniels Midland, in Decatur Ill. This project aims to store captured CO2 in nearby Mount Simon saline aquifer. The estimated costs are 207 billion and has required construction of a separate power plant to provide energy for capture, dehydration and compression of the CO2.

Just as the myth that burning biomass is “carbon neutral” has been relentlessly perpetrated, now another myth has emerged.  This myth refers to CCS as a means of sequestering carbon – removing it from the atmosphere and fixing the problem of climate change.  Yet in reality CCS is the oil and coal industry’s dream technology! Through a tangled web of misinformation and rhetoric they have convinced many that we should build more fossil and bioenergy industrial facilities, which will need even greater capacity to power carbon capture, which will then facilitate extraction of yet more oil.  This is sold to us as a “solution” to the climate crisis and in the case of bioenergy applications, as “climate geoengineering”.

While a remarkeable number of people, including IPCC scientists and even some environmentalists even appear easily fooled, the atmosphere and earth systems certainly will not be!

Dr. Rachel Smolker is a codirector of Biofuelwatch, and an organizer with Energy Justice Network. She has researched, written and organized on the impacts of biofuels, bioenergy and biochar on land use, forests, biodiversity, food, people and the climate. She works with various coalitions, national and international including the Mobilization for Climate Justice, Climate Justice Now and others opposing market-based solutions to climate change and other “false solutions”. She is the daughter of one of the founders of Environmental Defense Fund and participated in a protest against that organization because of the key role EDF played in advocating market based solutions to climate change. She has a Ph.D. in ecology/biology from the University of Michigan and worked previously as a field biologist, gaining first hand experience with the complex balance between the needs of people and the ecological systems they depend upon. She is author of “To Touch A Wild Dolphin” (Doubleday 2001) and lives in Vermont. A list of publications is available on request.

Intergovernmental Climate Report Leaves Hopes Hanging on Fantasy Technology

by Rachel Smolker

Wellheads that check the temperature and pressure of the sequestered carbon dioxide gas at American Electric PowerÕs Mountaineer plant.This year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed for us, once again, that the planet is warming, even more and even faster than panel members thought. In fact, it is getting even warmer even faster than they thought the last time they admitted to having underestimated the problem. We humans are in deep trouble, and finding a way out of this mess – one that will ensure a decent future for us – is becoming increasingly difficult, if not nearly impossible.

That difficult task is what the latest installment from IPCC, the Working Group 3 report on mitigation is intended to address. This past weekend, the “summary for policymakers” was released after the mad rush of government negotiations over the scientists’ text took place in Berlin last week.

This is the fifth assessment report, and differed from the previous reports by also including some (contentious) discussion of ethical considerations. Notably, this report acknowledges that economic growth is the fundamental driver of emissions. It also offers economic analysis showing that taking necessary steps to protect the climate would require an annual economic growth opportunity loss of a mere 0.06%. As Joe Romm noted: “that’s “relative to annualized consumption growth in the baseline that is between 1.6 percent and 3 percent per year.” So we’re talking annual growth of, say 2.24 percent rather than 2.30 percent to save billions and billions of people from needless suffering for decades if not centuries.”

That’s great, but the big question is: What investments are recommended, and would they actually work? What became clear from leaked earlier drafts was a troubling prominence of false solutions and unicorns included among the strategies for mitigation.

The report considered 900 stabilization scenarios, aiming to achieve anywhere from 430-720 ppm (parts per million of CO2) by 2100. What they concluded is that to achieve (maybe) even the alarmingly high 450-550 ppm – the level thought to hold some chance for limiting warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels – would at this point require not only reducing emissions, but also using some technology to actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

It seems that IPCC is at a loss to provide realistic pathways even to achieving 450 or 550 ppm, which is pretty alarming in itself, but also, it seems unrealistic to assume in any case that we are in control of earth systems such that we can pick a ppm target and just go there. We are already experiencing unanticipated, underestimated and uncontrollable feedbacks that make the discussions of targets and ppm modeling seem a bit obsolete. Nonetheless, this is the framework for the report.

IPCC is telling us that we will need not only to reduce the ongoing flow of emissions, but also to find a way to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. The working group cochair Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist, stated at the press briefing that many scenarios “strongly depend on the ability to remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

How are we to supposedly remove CO2 from the atmosphere? The only techniques on offer are bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration, also called BECCS, and afforestation.

The problem with this conclusion, and the reason the media picked up on it even prior to the final report release is that BECCS is almost entirely unproven; we already have a strong basis for assuming it will not actually work to remove CO2, and it is extremely risky and costly. IPCC acknowledges this, even as they deem it essential.

The media, starting with The Guardian, picked up on this even in advance of the final negotiations, referring to BECCS as “the dangerous spawn of two bad ideas,” and in another article referring to it as the “plan to worsen global warming.”

The BBC headlined “UN dilemma over ‘Cinderella’ Technology.” And the UK Daily Mail asked: “Could we SUCK UP climate change? Referring to the great potential for carbon storage in Britain due to many abandoned coal mines and gas wells.

Here is what the final summary report actually states: “Mitigation scenarios reaching about 450 ppm CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2100 typically involve temporary overshoot of atmospheric concentrations as do many scenarios reaching about 500-550 ppm CO2eq   in 2100. Depending on the level of the overshoot, overshoot scenarios typically rely on the availability and widespread deployment of BECCS and afforestation in the second half of the century. The availability and scale of these and other Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies and methods are uncertain, and CDR technologies and methods are, to varying degrees associated with challenges and risks (see Section SPM 4.2, high confidence). CDR is also prevalent in many scenarios without overshoot to compensate for residual emissions from sectors where mitigation is more expensive. There is only limited evidence on the potential for large-scale deployment of BECCS, large-scale afforestation and other CDR technologies and methods.”

Biofuelwatch (the organization for which I serve as codirector) authored a report on BECCS in 2012, and so we have some familiarity with the nature of the “uncertainties” and the degree to which evidence on the potential is “limited.”

There is near-zero real-world experience with BECCS beyond a handful of attempts and a surprising number of canceled projects.

BECCS is not only “risky,” but already we have very good reasons to assume it will fail. For one thing, the entire logic behind BECCS rests on false assumptions. One false assumption is that bioenergy (and so far that appears to include all manner of processes, from corn ethanol refineries to coal plants retrofitted to burn trees in place of coal for electricity) is “carbon neutral.” The idea is that adding CCS to a carbon neutral process, will render it “carbon negative.” That simplistic thinking assumes that carbon absorbed out of the atmosphere by plants as they grow will be captured and buried, and then when more plants grow, they will absorb yet more carbon, a net “removal.” But, much is left out of that story.

Virtually nobody still contends that corn ethanol is “carbon neutral.” Yet the premier BECCS project that is often referred to is an ADM corn ethanol refinery in Decatur Illinois. In fact, when emissions from indirect impacts are included in analyses, along with a complete assessment of the impacts from growing, harvesting, fertilizer and chemical use etc., most bioenergy processes actually cause more emissions even than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace. As for burning biomass (mostly wood) for electricity, there is a substantial literature – including peer-reviewed science, challenging the “carbon neutral” claim. It is well-established that counting just the emissions from smokestacks, burning wood releases around 50 percent more CO2 per unit of energy generation even than coal, along with many other pollutants. And it is simply incorrect to assume that this CO2 (as well as even further emissions resulting from harvest, transport and many indirect impacts) will be resequestered in new tree growth. If new trees do in fact grow, it may take decades. Further, we know already from the current scale of biofuel and biomass demand – just look at the current corn ethanol debacle – that it is driving loss of biodiversity, higher food prices, land grabs and other damages. Scaling up bioenergy to the extent that would be required to supposedly reduce global CO2 levels would be a disastrous backfire.

IPCC might have noted that the US EPA officials, charged with regulating CO2 emissions, found itself stymied with regard to how to account for emissions from bioenergy. Under pressure from industry, they decided to exempt biomass burning facilities from regulation for three years while they studied the problem. But that exemption was challenged in court, and the judge ruled there was no basis for it. In other words, CO2 from bioenergy should not be assumed “neutral” and therefore should not be exempted from regulation.

Most BECCS projects so far involve capturing CO2 streams from ethanol fermentation processes (because that is a relatively pure stream of CO2 that is cheaper and easier to capture). But then, the CO2 is not stored safely away, rather it is pumped into depleted oil wells to raise the pressure enough to force remaining oil out, a process called “enhanced oil recovery.” Oil industry analysts in fact estimate there is huge potential for accessing oil in this manner, and because it is profitable, it offsets some of the very substantial costs associated with CCS. This is hardly “carbon dioxide removal”! Furthermore, it is laying the groundwork in experience for using CCS applied to fossil fuels – i.e. so called “clean coal.” Capturing CO2 from coal plants remains more expensive and difficult due to the mix of gases, but the coal industry is hopeful that technology development will occur with BECCS.

The largely prohibitive costs have to do with the fact that capturing, compressing, transporting and storing CO2 all requires infrastructure and energy. It is assumed that adding CCS results in a “parasitic” energy load in the range of at least 30 percent of the facility capacity. In other words, 30 percent more biomass would be needed simply to power the CCS process itself.

Pumping and storing CO2 – from bio or fossil fuels – underground is downright foolhardy. We know full well that the earth’s crust is not static! There is the potential that CO2 deposits could increase seismicity (earthquakes). A catastrophic sudden release would be very dangerous given that CO2 is lethal at high concentrations. There is also much concern that the vast infrastructure of pipelines and trucking etc. that would be entailed in large scale deployment of CCS (with fossil or bio energy), would result in myriad small scale leaks. Valclav Smil calculated that to sequester just a fifth of current carbon dioxide emissions “. . . we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation-storage industry, whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry, whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storages took generations to build.”

IPCC recognizes how risky and uncertain BECCS is, and yet they still deem it essential? We might have hoped they would offer a pathway with more likelihood of success, given all that is at stake.

IPCC also include natural gas, nuclear and large-scale bioenergy all as “low-carbon or zero-carbon” options. And, as with BECCS, they provide lip service to the risks and concerns around these, but they seem to minimize these very real risks when the scenarios they rely on incorporate those same mitigation strategies (to differing degrees) as though they were viable.

To their credit, IPCC has recognized that geoengineering is not an option and should not be considered “mitigation.” While there was pressure, especially from Russia, to include geoengineering, including solar radiation management (SRM) into the mix, this was met with welcome resistance. Carbon Dioxide Removal techniques, including BECCS, also are considered in the context of geoengineering debates. But they are tightly linked to practices in place already, so it is more difficult to place them squarely in the geoengineering camp, where they would be subjected to the Convention on Biological Diversity defacto moratorium. We already know the impacts of large-scale bioenergy, and they are not at all clean, green, sustainable, low-carbon or carbon negative. They make matters worse, not better. Under the influence of desperation, we risk making lethal blunders.

While IPCC painted a remarkably palatable economic analysis of the costs of mitigation, they fall pretty flat in providing realistic means for using that finance to successful ends. Perhaps the problem boils down to this: IPCC knows economic growth is the driver, but instead of suggesting that we dramatically ramp it down within a justice-based framework, they instead seek a means to keep the engines of growth revving, but using “alternative,” and so-called “zero- and low-carbon” sources of energy and materials. In so doing, they sidestep reality.

This article originally appeared in Truthout.

Five facts CBC listeners didn’t hear from Canada’s geoengineering cheerleader

What’s missing from David Keith’s climate change charm offensive

by Jim Thomas

This article was originally published by the Media Co-op.

David Keith's preferred geoengineering scheme involves spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere.
David Keith’s preferred geoengineering scheme involves spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere.

Last Sunday, CBC listeners across Canada enjoyed their morning coffee and took care of a few chores around the house while the calm, mellifluous vocal cadences of Michael Enright and his guest David Keith washed over them. Keith, Enright said while introducing his guest, is a prominent and well-respected scientist, and the author of “The Case for Climate Engineering.”

Although both David Suzuki and Al Gore had branded Keith’s proposals “insane, utterly mad and delusional in the extreme”  Enright took pains to reassure listeners that his guest — a Harvard professor — was perfectly sane. Enright was kinder to Keith than Stephen Colbert had been a few months previous, and so unfortunately avoided a number of tough questions.
Climate Geoengineering is the process of attempting to counteract climate change by large-scale methods other than reducing carbon emissions. These include spraying tonnes of sulphuric acid into the atmosphere (Keith’s preferred option), mounting giant space mirrors to reflect sunlight and slow its warming effects, dumping tonnes of iron filings into the ocean to stimulate plankton growth, and sucking carbon out of the atmosphere with giant fans.
These measures have been opposed both because of their unpredictable effects and the fact that they give an excuse to rich countries to continue to increase carbon emissions on the basis of trumped-up techno-promises. In the same breath, Keith acknowledges and dismisses these criticisms.
Environmentalists who oppose geoengineering, Keith told Enright, are “more committed to their answer to the problem than really thinking in what I feel is a morally clear way about what our duties are to this generation and reducing the risks that they feel.”
Keith made the case for geoengineering, but he also made the case that those who oppose geoengineering are doing so because they have priorities other than slowing down the effects climate change. He aligned geoengineering with concerns about “how we want to leave the planet for our great-grandkids.” He took the time to talk about kayaking trips, and how he was motivated by a love of the natural world.
Keith didn’t take the time to mention a few other details. For those who are skeptical about Keith’s case for geoengineering, here are five things that Keith didn’t mention, and Enright kindly didn’t bring up.
1. David Keith runs a geoengineering company funded by tar sands money
In addition to being an author and a professor, David Keith heads up Carbon Engineering, a Calgary-based startup that is developing air-capture technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company is funded by Bill Gates, who is also a geoengineering proponent, and by N. Murray Edwards, an Alberta billionaire who made his fortune in oil and gas. Edwards is said to be the largest individual investor in the tar sands, and is on the board of Canadian Natural Resources Limited, a major tar sands extraction company. Carbon Engineering hopes to sell the carbon dioxide it extracts to oil companies to help in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR)- a technique for squeezing more fossil fuels out of the ground which will in turn be burnt to produce more atmospheric carbon.
2. The geoengineering that Keith proposes could be disastrous for the Global South
A study of the likely effects of one of the methods Keith is promoting, spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere with the aim of reflecting sunlight could cause “calamitous drought” in the Sahel region of Africa. Home to 100 million people, the Sahel is Africa’s poorest region. Previous droughts have been devastating. A 20-year dry period ending in 1990 claimed 250,000 lives. Other models predict possible monsoon failure in South Asia or impacts on Mexico and Brazil, depending where you spray the sulphur.
3. Keith’s geoengineering proposals are deeply aligned with the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry
If oil, natural gas and coal companies can’t extract the fossil fuels that they say they’re going to extract, they stand to lose trillions of dollars in stock value, $2 trillion in annual subsidies, and about $55 trillion in infrastructure. David Keith’s enthusiasm for geoengineering plays to the commercial interests of these companies whose share value depends on their ability to convince investors that they can continue to take the coal out of the hole and the oil out of the soil. This may be why fossil-sponsored neoconservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute have been so gung-ho for geoengineering research and development along exactly the lines that David Keith proposes. For example there is very little difference between what Keith proposes and what the American Enterprise Institute’s Geoengineering project calls for.
4. Climate scientists just issued a new round of criticisms of geoengineering
In the most recent report of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released before Keith’s interview aired, climate scientists loosed a new salvo of problems with various geoengineering schemes. “Geoengineering,” according to the report, “poses widespread risks to society and ecosystems.” In some models, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) — what Keith is pitching — “leads to ozone depletion and reduces precipitation.” And if SRM measures are started and then stopped for whatever reason, it creates a risk of ”rapid climate change.”
5. There’s already a widely-backed moratorium on geoengineering
While David Keith discussed possible ways of governing geoengineering internationally  he failed to mention that at least one UN convention was already dealing with the topic. The broadest decision yet on geoengineering, a 193-country consensus reached at the UN Convention on Biodiversity specifies that unless certain criteria are met, “no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place.” The moratorium is to remain in effect until geoengineering’s impacts on biodiversity and livelihood are analyzed, scientific evaluation is possible, and “science based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms” exist.
In the interview, Keith said outright that he wants to bypass such a system. He considers the input of Africa and South America, and much of Europe and Asia as unnecessary in order to move forward with a geoengineering scheme. It would be enough, he told Enright, to gain the agreement of a small but powerful “countries with democratic institutions,” citing China as an example, along with the US and the European Union. David Keith has been recognized for his achievements in applied physics, but when it comes to political science, it may be time for him to hit the books.
Jim Thomas is a Research Programme Manager and Writer at ETC Group.


Science or propaganda? New hype about Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage

A new article published in Environmental Research Letters has made media headlines such as “Burning trees ‘may help global warming”.  It is not unknown for the media to hype up and even misrepresent announcements by scientists, but in this case, the authors’ own press release indeed promises amazing prospects from Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS):  “What we demonstrate in our paper is that even if we fail to keep temperature increases below 2°C, then we can reverse the warming trend and push temperatures back below the 2°C target by 2150.”

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Tree plantations and bioenergy with carbon capture: far from “safe” geoengineering

Eucalyptus plantations in Bahia, Brazil, photo: Ricardo Carrere, World Rainforest Movement
Eucalyptus plantations in Bahia, Brazil

Amongst geoengineering methods, ‘afforestation’,  Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and biochar are commonly promoted as ‘safe’, benign’ or ‘soft’ options – unlike, say, shooting sulphur particles into the stratosphere.

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