What’s Next for Carbon Capture and Storage?

In February, President Obama tasked the Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage with the ambitious goal of overcoming the barriers to widespread, cost-effective deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) within the next 10 years.  As the first bold step, the 14-agency and executive department group released its findings in a report on August 12.

The report concludes that widespread cost-effective deployment of CCS will only occur if the technology is commercially available (i.e. scale-able and cost-effective) and a supportive national policy framework is in place to both fund and regulate it.  The task force believes that,  in the long run, there are no insurmountable technological, legal, institutional or regulatory barriers that will prevent CCS from playing a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  But that does not mean the early years will be easy.

CCS is a three-step process that includes the capture and compression of CO2 from power plants and industrial sources (usually coal-fired, since their carbon emissions are the most plentiful); transport of the captured CO2, usually in pipelines; and storage of that CO2 in geologic formations, such as oil and gas reservoirs and unmineable coal seams.   The report points out that technologies for all three components of CCS already exist, and there are four existing commercial CCS facilities in other parts of the world.

The US government has bought in to CCS in a big way, committing $3.4 billion in stimulus funds, including $1 billion for FutureGen, and just this week, DOE announced 15 projects receiving $21.3 million over the next three years.

So what is stopping the technology?  The key barrier identified by the task force is the lack of comprehensive climate change legislation.  Without a price on carbon (and a relatively high one, at that), there is no stable framework for investment in the technology.  Even with significant federal funds pouring in, projects of this scale still need private investment.  But legal and regulatory uncertainty, unsurprisingly, make funding the projects a shaky prospect.

The report concludes that early CCS projects — like the 5 to 10 DOE-supported CCS demonstration projects slated to begin operations by 2016 — can proceed under existing laws, but that the experience gained from those initial projects must be incorporated into a new regulatory framework before we embark on more widespread deployment.

The report lays out a plan for a federal agency roundtable, championed by DOE and EPA, to oversee and continually review the adequacy of technology, incentives, and safety during this initial period.  The plan includes a lot of work for EPA, such as formulating new regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that deal with the novel problems posed by storing commercial-scale amounts of pressurized carbon.

Of course, one of those problems is that the stored gas might escape.  The Task Force also made recommendations on procedures for long-term liability and stewardship, including creation of an industry-financed trust fund to support long-term stewardship activities and compensate parties for damages after site closure.  The report cautions against having open-ended federal indemnification to address the long-term liabilities.

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