Is ‘carbon capture’ the solution to global warming? Jim Moody gives his take on the question
How to stop runaway climate change? Recently, much hope has been invested into clean coal and geological sequestration. This approach to excessive CO2 levels entails capturing carbon dioxide, which is realistically only possible at source, such as during electricity production at the power station, then compressing and storing it. As an industrial-strength remedy it has the hypothetical, and arguable, advantage of enabling continued, and even increased, burning of fossil fuel.
Although coal’s contribution to world primary energy consumption has declined markedly over recent decades, of the three main fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) it still maintains a position, just behind oil and at parity with gas, of around 25% of the total. In North America (Canada, USA and Mexico) coal is a prime source of energy; half the electricity US consumers use is generated by coal. In Poland it contributes 95% of energy production. China and India use nearly half of the world’s coal; the expectation is (at least until recent months) that these two countries will take half as much again over the next two decades. It is indisputable that coal will remain abundant long after natural gas and oil have become scarce. Indeed, while the exploitable lifetimes of currently known natural gas and oil reserves can be measured in decades, those of coal are in centuries.
Thanks to coal being plentiful and inexpensive, it is used enthusiastically in the USA. Indeed, its use is expected to continue to rise in areas with abundant coal resources. In the years up to 2030, US power-providers are expected to build coal-fired electricity stations with a combined capacity well over 100 gigawatts. In recent years, China has seen the construction of what amounts to one large coal-fuelled power station every week. These new generating facilities will have a life of 60 years: and they will spew as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as was released by all the coal burned from the start of the industrial revolution to date.
Simply put, the fact that oil and gas contain a mixture of hydrocarbons means that during combustion they produce an appreciable amount of harmless water vapour alongside planet-warming CO2. Coal, on the other hand, really only pumps CO2 into the atmosphere when it is burnt, even in the most efficient of power stations. Not only that, but coal produces less energy weight for weight than oil or gas. To generate the same amount of energy, coal produces twice as much CO2 as fuel oil; the ratio is even worse when coal is compared with natural gas. However, as usual under capitalism, the bottom line wins: although it produces much more CO2 per unit of electricity generated, coal is cheap.
It is because coal is a qualitatively greater contributor to CO2 emissions than the other two important fossil fuels that intensive research, and resultant propaganda, efforts have been made to find ways of permitting its use to continue on a large scale.
Certainly, coal and its products continue to be essential energy-providers in the production of electricity. Coal is the fossil fuel whose combustion historically produced most pollution and which still exercises opponents of global warming. Coal-fired power stations have thus become a battleground for contending forces in the environmentalist debate. Clean coal and carbon capture (something of a misnomer for CO2 capture) have become value-laden phrases on both sides of the divide.
From July to September last year, two contributors to the Weekly Worker were at loggerheads in its letters columns on the issue. Simon Wells took Dave Douglass to task for his opposition to participants in the summer’s Climate Camp, which Dave understood had “declared coal their enemy number one. Their slogans demand that we ‘leave it in the ground’, which could well have been Maggie Thatcher’s and John Major’s slogan too.” Dave went on to propose “a demonstration for clean coal technology, for workers’ control of the mining and energy industry, and in defence of the NUM and energy unions at the start of the demonstration and blockade on August 4,” at the Climate Camp’s Kingsnorth power station protest.1
After Simon had replied, “The idea that clean coal technology provides a glimmer of hope is a false one”,2 Dave stormed back the next week to point out that the Thatcher and Major governments had demolished the British coal industry, yet the amount of cheap coal imported remains at the same level as what was produced by members of the National Union of Mineworkers previously. “It was and remains an overt political act, and an action of the ruling class engaged in class war.”3
Of course, comrade Douglass’s assessment of Thatcher et al is correct. But this hardly answers comrade Wells’s attack on purported clean coal technology, which Dave and the NUM seem to imagine is the technological answer to environmentalist concerns about coal.
British power stations have consistently consumed nearly 60 million tonnes of coal annually within the last decade. During this time, the balance of imported to domestic coal has certainly changed, with much more coal now coming from overseas than is mined in Britain. According to the relevant government department, “As the UK’s coal production declined, imports rose steadily and a milestone was reached in 2001, when more coal was imported (35.5 million tonnes) than was produced in the UK (32 million tonnes). Imports have continued to increase, as more coal-handling capacity has been installed at British ports and imports reached a record 44 million tonnes in 2005. UK coal production in 2005 was 20.5 million tonnes. Since 1997 power stations (which currently account for 85% of coal consumption in the UK) have used more coal each year than has been produced in the UK.”4
What Dave Douglass and the NUM are betting on is an untried and unproven technology. Currently there are three main methods of carbon dioxide capture at various stages of development: oxyfuel combustion capture, post-combustion capture, and pre-combustion capture.
Oxyfuel combustion capture is currently receiving a lot of investment from big players in the industry. Although by definition it is only just beyond the laboratory experiment stage, one of the biggest pilot plant ventures was inaugurated in September by the Vattenfall group in eastern Germany. It will be the first pilot plant in the world to use the oxyfuel capture method. It just happens that Vattenfall is Europe’s fifth largest generator of electricity and its largest producer of heat; its parent company of the same name is wholly owned by the Swedish government. So this is no hole-in-the-corner operation, but central to coal-fired energy industry development.
Vattenfall’s pilot plant is strategically located near the existing lignite-fired 1,600MW power plant at the Schwarze Pumpe complex, Brandenburg, and therefore close to Poland, a source of this low-quality feedstock. Lignite, or brown coal, is traditionally one of the most polluting fuels, with characteristics between those of coal and peat.
Local residents and district representatives in Legnica, Lubin, and Scinawa in Lower Silesia, south-western Poland, have protested. They are opposed to the plan to exploit the massive lignite reserves in their region for a huge new power station. But, as it stands, Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE) and Vattenfall, among others, are ‘looking forward’ to what is estimated to be a £1.75 billion project.
In terms of reaching toward a commercial (ie, profitable) level of carbon capture and storage in coal-fired power plants somewhere between 2015 and 2020, which is what is envisaged by the project’s partisans, the Brandenburg pilot plant is an important milestone.
Similarly, back in 2006, Norway’s ministry of petroleum and energy and Statoil agreed to establish a full-scale carbon capture and storage project in conjunction with an existing combined heat and power plant at Mongstad. The CO2 technology Test Centre Mongstad (TCM) will not be in place until 2011. Subsequently, a second stage is intended to be the construction of a carbon-capture plant, but the capture and storage facility is not planned to be operational until 2014. Main players DONG Energy, Shell, StatoilHydro, and Vattenfall are really only at the planning phase. All the current talk of Statoil and Shell seeking state aid to build a £3 billion power plant and CO2 capture facility, then piping the CO2 to Shell’s Draugen oilfield and Statoil’s Heidrun oilfield, is at present just that – all talk.
As far as the USA is concerned, it is just as far behind. Its vaunted FutureGen project is what it trumpets as “a public-private partnership to design, build and operate the world’s first coal-fuelled, near-zero-emissions power plant”.5 Development costs alone will be $1.5 billion. It promises to capture and permanently store CO2 “deep beneath the earth”.
As the FutureGen website admits, all the requisite technologies “have yet to be put together and tested at a single plant – an essential step for technical and commercial viability”. After all this effort and expenditure, the real clincher for its opponents propaganda-wise is that by 2012 FutureGen’s Mattoon, Illinois plant will be generating a measly 275 megawatts of electricity, enough for just “150,000 average US homes”!
Just a new chimera
However, the success of oxyfuel combustion capture or the other two carbon-capture technologies depends on more than industrial plant, even assuming the pilot schemes prove the worth of the technology that can be applied to the problem. Once captured, enormous quantities of CO2 must be stored. This will require vast, safe and secure methods of storage based on highly developed levels of geological and geophysical engineering. But whether geophysical engineering will be able to guarantee safe storage of CO2 over long periods is moot. Were storage to prove inadequate, leaking CO2 into the atmosphere, all the technologically advanced ‘clean’ coal-fired power plants in the world would, literally, have been proved useless.
If there were any doubts lingering about the problem of CO2, the scientific facts should have removed them. Many professionals recruited to the side of environmental science are not sanguine about the result for the world if CO2 levels remain as they are, let alone if they rise. Greenpeace quotes leading climate scientist and director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute, James Hansen, who wrote a year ago to Gordon Brown as follows: “But [the] decision to phase out coal use unless the CO2 is captured is a global imperative, if we are to preserve the wonders of nature, our coastlines and our social and economic well-being” (December 2007).
Activist organisations have been even more forthright. According to the Stop Climate Chaos coalition, “If we’re serious about climate change, we must halt emissions from coal, and fast. Right now, Gordon Brown has a big decision to make: he can either back renewable energy, or continue to rely on coal without carbon capture.”6 This argument sees no possibility that carbon (CO2) capture can, in effect, work.
Hardly more enthusiastic, the Campaign Against Climate Change has stated: “A justification used for new coal is that a new technology called CCS (Carbon capture and storage) will allow us to trap the carbon from burning coal before it can reach the atmosphere. This technology will be really great if anybody can make it work (safely), but so far unfortunately no-one has got anywhere near it.”7
The December 2008 United Nations meeting in Poznan was long on problems of global warming, but short on any solutions that bear any credibility. Arguing at the state level about developing countries (particularly Brazil, China and India) giving up their aim to reach more developed countries’ levels of production vied with similar nonsense about trading carbon credits. The latter being simply a transfer of the burden to the shoulders of the developing world in another way.
If so-called carbon capture is to be part of the solution to mounting levels of CO2 emissions around the world, how is this technology to be afforded outside the leading capitalist economies? (Even within them it may be a large economic problem, setting aside the practicalities and efficacy of the technology.)
Once more we are faced with a world problem that can only be solved on a world basis. Is it at all likely that capitalism can deal with this?
Despite the pilot plant project in eastern Germany that has just started, UN reports envisage implementation of carbon-capture technology in decades, at best. That does not stop some trade unionists from putting forward carbon capture as the salvation for their industry, using some narrowly sectional and, frankly, complacent arguments.
Complacency runs riot in some quarters. Thus, for example, Chris Kitchen, national secretary of the NUM, wrote recently in his union’s journal: “Many of the so-called ‘environmentalists’ are reminiscent of King Canute standing on the beach trying to turn back the tide when they argue for the world to stop burning fossil fuels. The government has a chance to do something towards reducing CO2 emissions worldwide by investing in clean coal technology and carbon capture, giving a lead to the world. At the same time they should consider our nation’s security of energy supply providing a climate for expanding our coal industry.”8
In the same issue of The Miner one anonymous article is headed ‘Why we must develop clean coal’, but there is no mention of how we can do so. Another anonymous article (‘Clean coal is the only hope’) pretty pessimistically remarks that, “The world is going to burn coal, especially underdeveloped economies such as China and India, no matter how many misguided so called ‘green’ demonstrations take place. It is not beyond us to develop means of burning coal in an environmentally safe way and at the same time allow these countries to develop while securing our own energy future.”
There is a major stumbling block to the whole concept of CO2 capture and storage, quite apart from how long it is going to take to put in place enough CCS plants to make a significant difference to the world’s climate. And that is the question of the safe storage of the CO2. Proponents of the carry-on-as-normal school of energy misuse quite cavalierly presumes that burial underground or under the sea bed or even in compressed form on the sea bed should be unproblematic. This is not so.
While oil and gas deposits as yet untapped are quite obviously intact below ground or sea bed, the use of boreholes for the extraction of fossil fuels or for the introduction of compressed CO2 inevitably brings with it the possibility of escape of that very same CO2. And, while geological science and associated technologies have developed far in the century or so since liquid and gaseous fossil fuels have been exploited, there are no guarantees that present apparently geologically sound repositories for CO2 will remain sound while there are human beings on Earth. As for the possibility, if not likelihood, of disturbance of a layer of compressed CO2 that is to be left just lying on the sea bed, which is one of the zanier storage ‘solutions’, is surely obvious even to the incurably optimistic.
Reporting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Norway’s environmental foundation, Bellona, reported that, “Seepage from the storage site is of great concern when it comes to CCS projects, be it through wells (injection and/or abandoned), through fractures and faults or through the overlying cap rock … The IPCC special report on carbon dioxide and capture in 2005 indicate that the level of seepage for CO2 storage sites will be at a probability of 1% or less seepage after 1,000 years. We believe this is an acceptable level, considering the alternative, which is 100% escape, following the non-implementation of CCS, where the CO2 is emitted directly into the atmosphere. It should also be expected that, following the continuous technological progress and subsequent implementation in the project, uncertainty will be reduced, and long-term sustainability will be ensured.”9 A rather sanguine judgement from these former eco-activists.
Since there can be no guarantees, there is the chance that once CO2 is stored beneath our feet or the waves it may not stay there, but escape into the atmosphere. Were that to happen, it would, of course, be as if CCS had never been. The effect on the world’s climate could well be extremely serious, with some decidedly unpleasant consequences for our species.
By some estimates, including those of UN agencies, the world has only seven years before it reaches a peak in emissions that must be followed by the most drastic of reductions, reductions that would be extremely harsh in their effects on the majority of the world’s population, including in the most advanced countries. Were there a leak of any size in stored CO2, even this scenario would pale in comparison. Since CO2 capture and storage has the short-term effect of feeding some profit-taking corporations, sweetened by government assistance, it will do as far as capitalism is concerned.
Effective, industrial CO2 capture and storage may never happen: we just do not know at this stage. With even the rogues’ club of the UN stating that the technology would anyway be unable to play any significant role for decades, there is little but pious hoping on the side of those propagandising for ‘clean coal’ as a solution for CO2-driven planet warming. It is no technical solution. Indeed, the search for one is a potentially dangerous diversion.
In concrete campaigning terms, proletarian propaganda has to state clearly that burning coal cannot continue. Mining coal for its value as a chemical industry feedstock, since its six main forms (graphite, anthracite, bitumous, sub-bitumous, lignite and peat) do contain compounds that can be utilised for human benefit, has to become the only reason for which it should be dug out of the ground.
Certainly ending coal as a fuel can only be part of a global change. No longer can we afford fossil fuels being burnt for energy use willy-nilly: our continued life on this planet cannot stand it. Alternative forms of energy generation will have to be developed – and quickly. We know resources are available at the drop of a hat for war or bailing out banks: now the human-centred question of energy production without CO2 has to receive even more than those antithetical objects of attention.
While wind, wave and nuclear fusion have received some attention up to now, they and other methods of non-polluting energy production have to be brought into play quickly. This will necessitate enormous coordination and expenditure on development and implementation, but will greatly repay all efforts in human terms for generations to come. As examples in Britain, energy-generating barrages across the Bristol Channel and the western Solent are feasible: they just need political action and will and the application of effort. And, while nuclear fusion, mirroring the processes at work in our sun, has been the subject of study, its application will most likely require a worldwide effort on the part of nuclear scientists and technicians that capitalism appears unlikely to countenance. All these various methods of energy production have to become a priority.
Finally, in terms of revision of the Draft programme of the CPGB,10 which is due for continuing extensive discussion this year, the foregoing conclusions need to be incorporated. Probably the best way to achieve this would be the creation of a new section under ‘3. Immediate demands’ to cover the environment, a subject upon which it is largely silent at present.
As the preamble to Section 3. says currently, “On the most basic level the development of capitalism in Britain creates the necessity among the workers to struggle against the effects of the capitalist system that confronts them.”
Without doubt, the environmental effects of the capitalist system that confronts us as a working class are serious and becoming graver all the time. The latest wheeze of capitalism, ‘carbon capture’, is no safe – and therefore for us no real – solution to CO2 pollution. Bourgeois politicians emulate Nero and fiddle while Rome burns.
We must not only oppose the increased use of coal and other fossil fuels, but demand that they be reduced, with the medium-term, concrete aim of phasing them out. In particular, coal mining for fuel should be stopped as a priority. We favour other means of generating power, integrated into a system of production for human need rather than profit.
We need a basic challenge to the consumerist, ever-increasing production model of capitalism (aped in the last century by bureaucratic socialism): anything else is anathema for human life. Capitalism is literally, in the final analysis, unsustainable. Basic survival of humanity, just on environmental grounds, means that it has to go.
When we deal with this question as part of the Draft programme discussions this year, it is my hope that comrades from outside the present ranks of the CPGB will contribute their suggestions and participate in the associated discussions, including by means of contributions to the Weekly Worker.
1. Weekly Worker July 10 2008.
2. Weekly Worker July 17 2008.
3. Weekly Worker July 24 2008.
4. Department for business, enterprise and regulatory reform Coal imports September 2006.
8. ‘Coal is energising the world’ The Miner September 2008.
9. My emphasis; ‘Comments on carbon dioxide capture and storage under the Clean Development Mechanism’, Oslo 2007.