Carbon Capture & Seriously Need a Price on Carbon Emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule yesterday that would exempt carbon dioxide injected into underground carbon capture & storage (CCS) wells from regulation as hazardous waste, so long as the CO2 is held in wells designated for that purpose under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  In its press release announcing the program, EPA noted that the purpose of the regulation — as well as its prior rulemakings under the Clean Air Act to require emissions reporting by CCS facilities, and the Safe Drinking Water Act to require appropriate siting, construction and monitoring of CCS wells — was to reduce barriers to the use of CCS and promote the technology, which has yet to be proven at a commercial scale.  If the EPA is behind it, what more could CCS need?

The interagency task force charged with evaluating barriers to CCS concluded in a report released last year that the chief obstacle for CCS was regulatory uncertainty, since most of our environmental laws do not contemplate such a technology.  The task force recommended that EPA implement regulatory changes such as this hazardous waste clarification.

But the biggest barrier remains — without comprehensive climate legislation and a price on carbon, there is no stable framework to encourage investment.  And this barrier is taking its toll.  This uncertainty is why AEP recently shelved plans to build a $668 million CCS retrofit on its Mountaineer coal-fired electric plant in West Virginia.

Although the outlook for CCS projects within the U.S. is thus uncertain, the United Nations’ support of the technology could prompt some CCS projects in developing nations.  E&E reports today that a decision to allow CCS projects to be eligible for credits under the Clean Development Mechanism may soon be forthcoming, if technical issues such as monitoring and verifying reductions, and environmental safety and insurance coverage can be resolved.

Other international organizations are also jumping on the CCS bandwagon.  A recent report by the International Energy Agency’s Greenhouse Gas R&D Program touts the potential benefits of combining CCS with biomass facilities, particularly in Asia and Latin America.  The IEA theorizes that because the plant life used to make biomass fuels absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, subsequent storage of the CO2 released from highly efficient biomass processes could actually reduce global atmospheric concentrations of carbon.  It’s like how celery has negative calories.

The report asserts that we technically have the potential to annually remove from the atmosphere up to 10 gigatons of CO2 — or about 1/3 of annual global emissions — through the use of biomass integrated gasification combined cycle plants and CCS.  A more economically-feasible implementation of these nascent technologies would still lead to reductions of 3.5 metric gigatons of CO2 annually.  Notably, even this “feasible” scenario assumes that CO2 will be priced at 50 euros ($71) per ton, worldwide.  Even in dreams of what could be, the development of CCS still has to face the obstacle of the price on carbon.

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