Photo: Flickr.com / Quinn Dumbrowski CC BY-SA
CCS is still a failure
After decades of talking and billions of euros in investments there are no large commercial CO2 storage facilities in Norway, Canada, the US or anywhere else in the world.
There is much less focus on CCS in the Norwegian debate these days. The reason is that in 2013 the project to build a full-scale demonstration CCS plant was shelved. But maybe the most frequently reported results from the Norwegian CCS experience are from the Sleipner project in the North Sea. Proponents of CCS point to Sleipner and say it is proof that CCS is feasible on a large scale. Among the arguments used is that it has pumped a million tons of CO2 per year – in total 48 million cubic metres – down into a sandstone formation called the Utsira formation since 1996, without any sign of leakage. According to Professor Peter M. Haugan at the Institute for Geophysics, University of Bergen, this may be just pure coincidence (or luck, in layman’s term). A careful study of the reservoir and the cap rocks above the reservoir was not carried out prior to the start of pumping in 1996. A later study of the CO2 storage reservoir carried out in 2014 showed numerous cracks and so-called chimneys through the cap rock, and some of them reached all the way down to the sandstone, where the CO2 is stored. A huge crack was found 25 kilometres north of the storage area. This could just as well have turned out to have been above the storage area, but nobody knew that back in 1996.
Professor Haugan’s conclusion was that it is very costly to research a possible storage area in order to be sure that it will not leak. The process may take between 3 years at the best and 10 years at the worst, before one can draw a conclusion. This conclusion is not guaranteed to be positive. A long and costly process may end with a “No”, that the area is not suitable for storage. This also means that CO2 storage areas are a resource with a limited supply, and must be treated as such. They should not be used for storage of CO2 that may be otherwise removed by other measures.
Statoil, which is the oil company with most experience in the North Sea, and the operator of Sleipner and the CCS project there, is optimistic about the long-term prospects of CO2 storage in the North Sea. However, at the present time, there are no large commercial CO2 storage facilities anywhere in the world. The term “commercial” means a facility that accepts CO2 from several customers for storage. Neither are there any large-scale CCS plants anywhere in Europe that may need a place to store CO2. The price of CO2 is also far too low to make a commercial CO2 storage facility economically viable. The CO2 price must be at least 50 USD/ton, while at present the price is just 6 USD/ton CO2, according to Statoil.
The Sleipner project is only intended to store CO2 separated from the natural gas extracted from the reservoir deep under the seabed, and does not accept CO2 from other sources. An important reason for this is that the CO2 at Sleipner has very different properties from CO2 captured from exhaust gases at a power plant. The equipment that handles the CO2 is designed to suit these properties, and cannot handle CO2 with different properties. The CO2 at the Sleipner field arrives at the surface together with natural gas under very high pressure and at very low temperature, and the separation of the CO2 from the natural gas is tailored for this. The pressure makes it easier to pump the CO2 down into the storage area.
These are the main reasons why the Sleipner project has only limited value as an example of what is possible regarding commercial storage of CO2 underground, especially in underground formations in the North Sea.
Quite often other types of CC – Carbon Capture – projects are also lumped together with real CCS projects such as the Sleipner project. This causes confusion, and creates a false impression that there are many real CCS projects around the world. This impression is of course useful for the supporters of CCS, so they do not try to clear up the misunderstanding, and may even actively contribute to the confusion. The problem lies with projects that separate CO2 from exhaust gases, mainly from coal-fired power stations. These projects are examples of Carbon Capture – CC – but the Storage part is missing. The CO2 from many Carbon Capture plants is not stored underground with the express intention that it should remain there for a very long period of time. Instead, the CO2 is often used for industrial purposes, and eventually released back into the atmosphere. (Whenever you open a bottle of fizzy sugar drink, the CO2 in the bottle is released into the atmosphere.) Another use, which is quite common, is the use in Enhanced Oil Recovery – EOR. Here, the CO2 is pumped down into oil and gas reservoirs. This increases the pressure in the reservoir, and pushes out more oil and gas. The CO2 will also find its way back into the atmosphere from the oil and gas reservoirs, even if it may be delayed for some time. To call this “storage” is confusing, since the CO2 captured is not stored underground; it is only delayed on its way to the atmosphere. Lumping together CC and CCS projects and calling them all CCS is therefore dishonest, and does not reflect the real situation.
In recent years two or three such CC projects have been hailed as the next big CCS projects, although they are not. The most recent example has been touted as America’s first “clean coal” plant, as it captures CO2 from a coal combustion plant outside Houston, Texas. However, it is not a CCS plant, since the CO2 captured is piped 80 miles to the West Ranch oil field. There the CO2 is used to force additional oil from the ground. The same article also describes the Kemper Plant, located further east, in the state of Mississippi. This is a plant that gasifies lignite, a type of coal, into something called syngas, and removes some of the CO2 in the process. The syngas is burned for electricity generation, and CO2 from the exhaust gas is also stripped away. Together, the CO2 from both stages is then shipped to an oil field for EOR – to aid additional oil recovery. In the article, both plants are lumped together and called examples of CCS, although this is patently wrong. There is no permanent storage of the CO2; it will escape to the atmosphere after being used in EOR.
The Boundary Dam CC plant in Canada is a third example of a plant that captures CO2 and 90 per cent is used for EOR in an oil field not far away. A small part, 10 per cent, is used in an experimental storage facility.
A review of most of the plants that CCS supporters are lumping together and calling CCS plants would probably reveal the same facts: carbon capture is mainly done in order to get CO2 for use in EOR – pushing more oil out of the ground. This is not doing anything to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere, and so cannot be called a climate mitigation measure. Rather the opposite, in fact, since it can be argued that these plants increase the amount of oil available for burning. That is not helpful for the atmosphere, or for humanity and the ecosystems on this planet.