UK’s Clean Coal Task Group Urges Government To Invest In Carbon Capture And Sequestration - Why?

Having ‘clean coal’ in a group’s name is a bit like a red flashing light on the road ahead to a healthier economy and a smarter grid.

So when the Guardian Environmental Network published in a Business Green blog October 18 post that Clean Coal Task Group asked Parliament to fast track UK’s carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) timetable and add on to its first £1 billion CSS competition, there was reason to clarify the good, the bad and the ugly.

At the crux are EU emissions standards that would lead to the closing of five of the country’s 19 coal plants within four years, and 10 more by 2018—even if the first CSS competition stays on schedule. Good, bad or ugly?

In an effort to staunch their projected loss of 10,000 jobs in mining and coal plants, the groups proclaim that the government’s “number one energy priority” is to invest in carbon capture and storage technologies and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But let’s at least take an honest look at the implications.

Clean Coal Task Group (CCTG), whose prominent member, Trades Union Congress (TUC) and seven of its affiliated unions say governement spending will ostensibly build “infrastructure” to bolster heavy industries like steelworks, cement and chemical plants.

Good apparently means your equation of reason looks something like this:

Steel / cement / chemical plant jobs gained – coal jobs lost = cost of CCS investment

The Green Blog post quotes Doosan Power Systems technology policy liaison, Dr. Mike Farely, also chairman of CCTG, saying, “Actions taken now to invest in carbon capture technology and reform our electricity market can secure this core industry in a low carbon economy for the long term.” That’s good, right? Who doesn’t want to hear that?

What a lot of people don’t want to hear about is the pain of getting to a low carbon economy. The blog ends with Farley saying that the UK will lose a “once-only” chance for global leadership if Parliament delays CSS project development. Other industry viewers point out that the starter gates of the carbon capture technology race have yet to open.

For the ugly consider a Scientific American October 4 post which reports that worldwide there are a total of 14 CSS projects. Only eight are “in operation”, while the other six are in some phase of construction. Ten of these are found in the U.S. and Canada. None of the operational projects are for coal plants.

In reality, most of the existing CSS projects, according to the Australian-based Global CSS Institute 2011 report involve capturing CO2 from fertilizer and natural gas processing plants and selling it to oil companies. This occurs because what’s known as enhanced oil recovery means that the more captured CO2 that’s pumped into an oil field, the more crude oil it yields. This is good for oil companies, but ugly for climate change slowdown.

Another point worth noting, is that the inadequacies of today’s carbon capture and storage technology makes it difficult and therefore more expensive to extract it and separate or “capture” CO2 out of the complex emissions that stream out of coal fired power plants which account for nearly a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). This sounds bad.

The Guardian post — good, bad or ugly — doesn’t point out either that none of the large-scale projects in operation today are on coal plants. On the other hand, the Scientific American post makes clear that carbon capture and sequestration technology “has never been proven at scale in the electricity sector.” Is it just me or is everything starting to sound both good and bad?

The International Energy Agency estimates that CCS technology needs to supply 19 percent of emission reductions by mid-century if carbon dioxide output is to be halved by then. But taking CO2 out of heavy industry emitters like cement and putting it back into enhanced oil recovery won’t do it.

According to the Scientific American article “the wrinkle is that some sort of a carbon price is needed in the long term to deploy the technology,” the Global CSS institute said. And that’s the ugly for both those who know it’s needed now and those who will fight to the end to postpone its inevitability.