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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Carbon Capture and Storage Investment Is Strongly Needed

Summary.  Increased burning of fossil fuels leads to greater global warming, resulting in disasters from extreme weather events.  These carry heavy financial burdens.  An important, but unproven technology for mitigating global warming is removal and burying waste carbon dioxide using carbon capture and storage.  Worldwide research, development and demonstration, while active, is considered inadequate to lead to industrial implementation by about 2020.  Expanded support by government funding and private investment is needed to attain commercialization of this technology.  Considered as a zero-sum undertaking, current investment expenditures in capture and storage would abate future expenses of responding to extreme weather disasters.


Increased Use of Fossil Fuels.  Energy use around the world is projected to continue increasing in coming decades, due mostly to use by developing countries, especially China and India, as they progress toward becoming advanced industrialized nations themselves.  Most of this energy demand will still be satisfied by burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) although the share provided by renewable sources is increasing.

Stronger Greenhouse Effect.  This increased burning of fossil fuels is directly responsible for the ever-increasing content of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere.  This has led to an increase in the long-term global average temperature, whose trend over time coincides with the trend of increasing use of fossil fuels and emission of CO2.

Climate Models Confirm Man-Made Greenhouse Gases Are Responsible for Warming.  Climate models that include the extra CO2 from fossil fuels over the past 50 years successfully reproduce the observed rise in global temperature.  But if the extra CO2 is omitted, the predicted temperature falls below the observed values.  This shows, first, that the climate models correctly predict past events, and second, that past temperature increase is due to the extra CO2 from fossil fuels.

Climate Models Predict Increased Occurrence of Extreme Weather Events.  Since the above results validate climate models, they can be used to project future climate developments.  The United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects increased occurrences of extreme weather events, such as heat waves and heavy rain, as more greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere.  These in turn lead to harms and damages to human life, including wildfires in forests, flooding, droughts and decreased agricultural production.

The Effects of Long-Term Temperature Increases Are Worsening 

Several recent articles point up the unprecedented effects of warming of the planet.  Their occurrence is consistent with projections by climate scientists that extreme weather events will increase in number and/or severity.  These are given under Details at the end of this post.

Carbon Capture and Storage

Carbon Capture and Storage, or Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), refers to technologies that remove most of the CO2 from power plant exhaust before the gas is dispersed into the atmosphere.  The captured CO2 is then transported to a suitable site, and injected for permanent storage underground in impermeable geological formations (see this previous post).  The storage must truly be permanent, lasting hundreds to thousands of years, in order for it contribute to reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.  If implemented on an industrial scale world-wide, CCS could make a major contribution to reducing the rate of warming of the planet.

The Nations of the World Have Failed to Limit Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  The nations of the world have so far not been able to agree on a follow-on agreement to the Kyoto Protocol limiting greenhouse gas emissions, which expires at the end of 2012.  Domestically in the U. S., there is no legislated national policy for reducing emission of greenhouse gases.  The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, has recently issued regulations limiting emissions from large sources.  EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have issued rules increasing vehicle fuel efficiency.

To date, only the European Union, the United Kingdom and the American state of California have implemented economy-wide plans to reduce greenhouse gas emission by at least 80% by 2050. 

CCS Is Critical to Decarbonize Energy Production by 2050.  A nonofficial report issued by the California Science and Technology Council (CSTC) recognized that existing technologies could not accomplish California’s objective (see this post).  Rather, CSTC proposed that vehicle transportation had to shift from burning fossil fuels to electricity, and that consequently electricity generation had to be essentially completely decarbonized.  CSTC’s report relies heavily on industrial-scale CCS to attain this objective.

The European Union likewise recognizes the crucial role to be played by CCS in achieving its decarbonization goals.

Unfortunately, CCS at present is only an experimental technology, not a proven one (see this post).  The Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF) is an international consortium of 25 nations directed toward research, development and demonstration (RD&D), and implementation, of CCS.  According to its Technology Road Map 2011 (TRM) , there are fewer than 100 planned or operating CCS experimental projects worldwide.  These vary in size, the particular technology being studied, and the nature of the geological formation chosen for injection.  Of the 100 projects, only four are operational commercial scale installations with validated assessment systems, meaning that the scale of storage is at an industrially-feasible level, in the range of about 1 million tons of CO2 stored per year.  Additional projects worldwide are planned or in development at pilot to industrial scales.  

There are about 40 such pilots in the U. S. and Canada.  Only seven use geological storage, and more than half are devoted to “beneficial reuse” (referring to EOR; see below).

China is currently the nation emitting the highest amount of CO2 in the world, and its emission rate is projected to grow significantly in future decades because of its dynamic economic expansion.  Even so, the TRM identifies only four pilot scale projects in China, not all of which are directly related to capturing and storing CO2 emissions from power generation.

In the U. S., Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN), a publication of the American Chemical Society, reported on July 16, 2012 that the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) is supporting 8 industrial and electric utility CCS pilots for startup between 2013 and 2017.  DOE is contributing US$2.8 billion out of a total investment of US$10.0 billion for 7 of the 8 pilots.

Many CCS projects cannot be considered true tests of new storage technology, because the CO2 is being injected into pre-existing fossil fuel depositories which clearly have not leaked their holdings for millions of years.  Furthermore, other pilots are using the CO2 in the previously known process of Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), in which the gas is used to force additional crude oil out of a well that otherwise would be nearing the end of its useful life.  Since new fossil fuels are being harvested by EOR, this method cannot be considered to contribute to the net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, which is the intended purpose of CCS.  Nevertheless, the CSLF, in the Second Update to its Strategic Plan, has expanded its objectives to include industrial utilization of captured CO2, including EOR but also other industrial uses as well.

Gaps in Knowledge and Technological Capabilities in CCS

The TRM identifies several unknown factors or insufficiencies in the present state of the technology that need to be addressed under RD&D objectives (see its Module 3).  These fall into the three main processes for CCS, first, new technologies for capturing CO2; second, transportation of CO2 from the site of its capture to the storage site; and third, technologies for identifying and developing permanent geological storage sites.  Zoback and Gorelick recently raised the strong possibility that injecting industrial volumes of CO2 into geological formations carries a significant risk of inducing seismic events that would allow  leakage back to the surface. 

Zoback and Gorelick calculated that worldwide, CCS has to dispose of 3.5 billion tons of CO2 produced per year.  This would require that worldwide about 3,500 industrial-scale injection facilities be operational by mid-century, which averages to about 85 facilities added per year.  RD&D on scaling up is critical for current as well as to-be-developed technologies, and to optimize economies of scale.  RD&D projects need to be operational by 2020 or earlier. 

The Need for Government Support 

The High Cost of RD&D. Each CSS pilot project is a major industrial operation requiring large investments of capital and long lead times for implementation.  The TRM identifies several governments, including the U. S., that together have committed more than US$26 billion for RD&D, which should enable between 19 and 43 RD&D projects by 2020.  It points out, however, that “the time, cost, and resources required…for multi-billion investment decisions are often heavily underestimated by the funders, be they governments or other CCS project proponents.” 

The U. S. RD&D Effort Is Diminishing In Recent Years.  The TRM notes that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus” of 2009) allowed for US$3.4 billion for CCS projects.  Unfortunately this fiscal stimulus has reached its end and is not being renewed. The DOE Fossil Energy Research and Development Program appropriation amounts are shown in the table below; the decrease from 2010 to the request for 2012 is 31%. 

Fiscal Year
Expenditure or Congressional Request, US$ millions
672 (continuing resolution)
453 (Congressional request)

Department of Energy FY 2012 Congressional Budget Request ( 

High Costs And Other Factors Have Resulted in Cancellations of RD&D Projects.  The TRM reports that, of the projects listed in its preceding TRM dated 2009, several were canceled by 2011, and more than half underwent budget contractions.  This has led to delaying of timelines and the potential for further cancellations.  Principal reasons for these reductions included lack of government funding and “changed economics” (which this writer interprets as cost increases arising from updates and review).  Itemization of some canceled projects is given below, in Details. 


Mankind’s projected increase in use of fossil fuels for energy in coming decades will lead to increased world-wide average temperatures.  This trend is expected to increase the number and severity of extreme weather events, leading to serious economic and societal harms to affected populations around the world.  These harms are accompanied by massive economic costs that ultimately are borne by the tax-paying public and by higher insurance policy premiums. 

It appears not practical at present to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by cutting back on use of fossil fuels to the extent needed.  Rather, an important aspect of abating emissions would be the development and widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage technology added on to fossil fuel-powered energy providers. 

Yet CCS is an experimental technology not yet proven to be capable of or adequate for decarbonizing energy generation at an industrial scale.  One estimate proposes a need for about 3,500 industrial-scale CCS facilities world-wide by 2050. 

RD&D and industrial implementation of CCS requires investment in large scale experimental and pilot projects having long lead times.  Currently political environment generally is not sufficiently supportive of such efforts.  Large scale support from the governments of both developed and developing countries, in collaboration with private sector industrial investment, is needed to vindicate and validate CCS.  Yet generally at present the trend of both political and financial support is diminishing rather than growing.  

It is recommended that expanded planning be started right away for CCS development and deployment.  This requires long-term commitments at both the political level and in fiscal and financial support.  Such expenditures now would lead to economies of scale as CCS is implemented. 

Globally, the expenses borne by society in response to the harms inflicted by the worsening effects of global warming, on the one hand, and the expenses of needed investment in greenhouse gas abatement technologies, on the other, are the elements in a zero-sum energy undertaking.  The more investment undertaken now for abatement would be rewarded by minimizing the economic damages inflicted by extreme weather events in the future.  It behooves the nations of the world to make the necessary investments for the betterment of their citizens.


Details on The Effects of Long-Term Temperature Increases 

On July 25, 2012 the New York Times reported that in only four days (July 8 to July 12) the extent of the surface of the ice sheet covering Greenland that was melting grew from 40% to 97%, a phenomenon never seen in recent times.  It is in accord with two recent ice sheet calving events, involving sections twice and four times the size of the island of Manhattan, respectively. 

In the U. S., the extreme drought in the Midwest has severely affected agricultural yields, the Times reported on July 26, 2012.  So far, this year is the hottest year on record in the U. S.  More than 50% of the country was classed as suffering moderate to extreme drought in June 2012 , the worst in nearly 60 years.  The drought reduces the corn crop, which impacts livestock and poultry production as well as production of corn ethanol.  As a result food prices in 2013 are expected to increase 4-5%, affecting the economic wellbeing of all Americans. 

Also on July 26 the Times reported that extreme heat was damaging a large number of infrastructure elements, including roads, subways and electric utilities. 

The large number and severity of forest wildfires experienced in the western U. S. in 2012 is to be expected as global temperatures rise, according to a teleconference of climate scientists convened the last week in June, 2012.  Prof. Michael Oppenheimer, a member of the IPCC, stated “the disastrous fires we’ve seen fit into a pattern of increased fire risk … it’s a vivid image of what we can expect more of as the world warms more”.  The Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado in June 2012 destroyed nearly 350 homes and burned over 17,000 acres (6,880 hec).
James Hansen, a pioneering climate scientist, has warned of the dangers of global warming for several decades.  He and two colleagues analyzed recent weather extremes by statistical probabilities.  They conclude “the distribution of seasonal mean temperature [deviations from historical averages] has shifted toward higher temperatures and the [size of these deviations] has increased. ….Extreme heat waves, such as that in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow [Russia] in 2010, [are attributed to] global warming, because their likelihood was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming.”
More generally, Coumou and Rahmstorf (Nature Climate Change 2, 491-496 (2012); doi:10.1038/nclimate1452) analyzed weather extremes from 2000 to 2011 around the world.  They conclude that events such as heat waves and/or drought, and heavy precipitation, are linked to mankind’s effect on the climate. 

Details on Cancellations of RD&D Projects.   

The Guardian on June 17, 2012 reported that the chief executive of Scottish and Southern Energy warned “CCS is…at the demonstration stage….We do not know that this technology will work”.  He called for UK government support at this demonstration phase of the project. 

The same article noted that another company, Scottish Power, working with Shell, abandoned CCS technology last year because it needed at least £1.5 billion (US$2.3 billion), higher than the UK government could support. 

Similarly, the Guardian reported on June 26, 2012 that Ayrshire Power (Scotland) abandoned its planned new CCS-fitted 1852 MW power plant because it feared it could not obtain funding from the UK and the European Commission. Several other UK pilot projects have been canceled in recent years, for both financial and technical reasons. 

C&EN reports that American Electric Power terminated its projected CCS pilot, an add-on to an existing coal-fired power plant.  A company officer stated “it is difficult to show any justification for carbon capture when Congress has taken no action and has [no future action planned]….A utility would be very reluctant to build a new power plant with CCS. There is no known technology that can do it.”

© 2012 Henry Auer

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