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CCS 101 on Capitol Hill

July 18, 2014

This posting originally appeared in the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI) ‘Insights‘ blog.

I was recently on a panel at a Capitol Hill briefing held by the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute about the status of carbon capture and storage (CCS) and the need for financial incentives. Held this May in Washington DC, the audience included staff from Congressional offices, the media, and other interested stakeholders from industry and NGOs. CCS is one of those technologies for which people have strong, and sometimes not very well informed opinions. Some environmental advocates have depicted CCS as being simply a fig leaf for the coal industry, while some in industry have claimed it’s a science experiment that we need to conduct for the next several decades before we can use it to regulate carbon emissions.

So, I was happy to have the opportunity to participate in the forum and share my perspective, which is this: first, we need CCS to address climate change, full stop. Two-thirds of the world’s global warming CO2 pollution comes from power plant and industrial smokestacks, and we simply can’t eliminate that pollution without CCS. Second, CCS is nothing new – we’ve been capturing CO2 for industrial purposes from smokestacks for more than half a century. Finally, enhanced oil recovery (EOR) using CO2, also known as CO2 EOR, can be a crucial catalyst for getting CCS out of smokestacks and putting it back permanently in geologic formations.

EOR is a 40-year old industry that plays a small part of US oil production today, but even so has resulted in the injection and incidental storage of nearly 1 billion tons of CO2. If CO2 from smokestacks can be re-directed to the oil fields, then EOR can do double-duty by catalyzing the deployment of CCS at wide scale, driving costs down, and improving US energy security through additional domestic oil production. But we’re only just beginning to apply existing technology to big sources like power plants – so even in commercial settings like EOR, we need incentives to kick-start the industry.

I was even more heartened to hear the other participants share the following:

CCS is not a science experiment. It’s here today, but it needs incentives. This position was best represented by Senator Heidi Heitkamp (ND), the event’s keynote speaker. As a former board member of the Basin Electric and Gas Cooperative, Senator Heitkamp knows first hand about one the longest running CCS projects in the US – the Dakota gasification project that turns coal to substitute natural gas and stores the excess CO2 in the Weyburn oil fields of Alberta. She has also introduced legislation (S. 2152) that includes incentives for coal plants that capture CO2 for CO2 EOR. While she understands this technology exists, she also recognizes that costs need to come down. And the way to do that is by making the technology more innovative and efficient by using smart incentives to drive deployment.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp (ND) addresses the Capitol Hill briefing on CCS

The panel agreed that there is significant common ground on moving EOR-CCS forward among industry, environmentalists, liberals and conservatives. Patrick Falwell of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) represented the National EOR initiative (NEORI) – a coalition of environmental and conservative public interest groups, the coal industry, project developers, technology companies, labor unions, state officials and others that support developing incentives to promote CO2 EOR (including CATF). Senator Jay Rockefeller (WV), a long-time supporter of CCS, recently introduced the (S. 2887) bill, which reflects many of the recommendations from the NEORI coalition for incentives to capture CO2 from coal plants, gas plants, and industrial sources. While it’s not the end game for CCS, this CO2 EOR incentive can drive a substantial number of CCS projects, bringing the technology to scale and significantly reducing costs.

Getting steel in the ground for the first large CCS power projects is the first step. Karl Moor, Executive Vice President of Southern Company, underscored the reality that many of the first-mover CCS power plants, like Southern’s Kemper project, require support precisely because early movers experience the most learning – which can be translated into higher costs. The Department of Energy’s Dr Julio Friedmann, Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy, noted the importance of moving through the first phase of projects so that lower-cost projects will be brought on line.

Dr Julio Friedmann, Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy, U.S. Department of Energy and Karl Moor, Executive Vice President of Southern Company

Collaboration with China is key. Both Dr Friedmann and Mr Moor underscored that there is enormous opportunity to develop CCS and reduce costs by collaboration with China. Like the US, China has significant EOR opportunities and has a substantial industrial base that can potentially provide CO2. Combining US EOR know-how, China’s industrial and power footprint, and innovation from both countries creates a powerful synergy that can benefit the world by accelerating the development of globally affordable CCS. Incentives policies that grow the US domestic opportunities only reinforce that synergy.

Kurt Waltzer, Managing Director, Clean Air Task Force and Julio Friedmann

The event was a great opportunity to lay out the facts. Let’s hope we move from conversation to action ASAP!

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