New Developments In The Underground

What do a coal-fired power plant in Meredosia, Illinois and a National Park in Ecuador’s Amazonian jungle have in common? Carbon sequestration — albeit of two very different kinds. Last week, while the U.S. government made a major funding commitment to a project aimed at capturing carbon dioxide emissions from the stack of a coal fired power plant in the Midwest, the government of Ecuador took steps towards preventing the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels in the first place by signing an agreement that would keep a significant chunk of its oil reserves locked underground.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced on August 5 that it will support the redesign the FutureGen project, a public-private partnership formed to construct and operate a low-emission coal-fired power plant in southern Illinois. Rather than building a new facility, the $1 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding will go towards updating an existing 200-megawatt unit at Ameren Energy Resources Company’s Meredosia facility. The retrofit will use a new technology called oxy-combustion, which generates a “purified” stream of carbon dioxide emissions that are easier to capture than the diluted carbon dioxide stream that results from burning coal with air. The project will capture 90 percent of the unit’s CO2 emissions and funnel them via a new carbon dioxide pipeline network to a regional carbon storage site in Mattoon Illinois, about 140 miles east of the power plant.

Meanwhile, the government of Ecuador signed an agreement with the United Nations Development Program on August 3 establishing a framework for a trust fund to protect Yasuní National Park from oil development. As reported by BNA, the Park is home to 20% of Ecuador’s oil reserves, worth about $55 billion at current prices.  Yasuní is also one of the most biologically diverse place on Earth and home to several indigenous groups.  What is this commitment worth?  The Ecuadorian government has set the price tag at $3.6 billion, and plans to appeal to donor governments for contributions to the trust fund.  Ecuador should be encouraged by donor nations’ past investments in debt-for-nature swaps and the $3.5 billion pledge by the governments of Norway, Japan, the U.S., the U.K., France and Australia for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) at last year’s Copenhagen climate conference.  On the other hand, the concept of paying to stop oil development (rather than deforestation) is new, and donors may question the timeframe for the commitment, especially since postponing the development of the resource might only increase its value and thus the risk of exploitation.

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Clearly, there is much more at stake with both of these projects than the number of tons of CO2 they will rescue from the atmosphere, but it’s interesting to compare the numbers nevertheless.  Ecuador is asking for $3.6 billion to prevent 436 million metric tons in CO2 emissions whereas the U.S. government is spending $1 billion (not to mention the private investment) towards an entire network of projects that, once built, is expected to prevent 1 million tons of CO2 per year from release to the atmosphere.  Assuming these numbers are correct, they suggest that not combusting fossil fuels is a more cost-effective way of limiting CO2 emissions than recovery of CO2 after combustion.

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