Carbon Capture Deserves Our Support

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) — the idea that CO2 can be collected from smokestacks and stowed away underground — is one of the hottest flashpoints in the politics of climate change. Many environmentalists fought unsuccessfully to strip out CCS incentives from the energy bill signed into law by President Bush this month, arguing that CCS is at best a distraction from a more fundamental shift toward renewable energy sources — if it works at all to keep any CO2 out of the atmosphere. (This may have escaped your notice because the battle over the bill ranged from a historic boost to U.S. fuel efficiency standards –which passed– to a renewable energy mandate stripped out at the last minute.)

I wade into the CCS debate this month in an op-ed for the Earth-observation portal Earthzine arguing that CCS deserves our support. My essay, a response to an Earthzine editorial that knocked CCS, looks back forty years to show that CCS is closer to proven than its critics allow. As for the economics of CCS, I argue that the dirt-cheap cost of coal-fired power provides plenty of room for the extra costs associated with capturing and sequestering CO2.

What is needed for CCS to take off is a way of monetizing the value of carbon capture. The latest energy legislation begins that process, extending tax credits for renewable energy to that produced from coal power plants practising CCS. What’s ultimately needed for both CCS and renewables to become the new normal are energy taxes or carbon trading to put a price on every CO2 molecule released into Earth’s atmosphere.

For another look at how real CCS is today and how nascent carbon markets are suffering out the wait for carbon pricing see “Carbon Capture Moves Ahead”, my story for Technology Review on the efforts of leading U.S. carbon offsets marketer Blue Source to generate and sell carbon credits from CCS projects. The bottom line: It’s a lot harder to innovate when emitting carbon costs $2/ton in the U.S., compared to roughly $30 in Europe.

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