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May 082008

By Harriet Blake

As the 7th annual Conference on Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) continues this week (May 5-8) in Pittsburgh, many environmentalists are finding themselves in disagreement on the subject.

CCS has become a popular option in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions, especially by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). CCS technology traps and stores massive quantities (in the ground or the ocean) of carbon dioxide that come from coal power plants.
Earlier this week, the DOE gave more than $126.6 million to the West Coast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership (WESTCARB) and the Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership (MRCSP) for the two large-scale carbon sequestration projects. In December, the DOE awarded $66.7 million to the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium for another sequestration project. These projects involve testing diferent sites to prove that a geologic formation can safely, permanently and economically store more than one million tons of carbon dioxide. Carbon sequestration is a key component of the Bush administration’s plan to seek clean coal technology, and thereby, meet future energy needs.

Greenpeace, meanwhile, just published “False Hope,” a report that denounces carbon capture, calling it a “scam.” The author of the piece, Emily Rochon, says, “It is the ultimate coal industry pipe dream….and an excuse for coal companies to build more coal plants.

“The technology is not insurmountable,” says Rochon, “but at what cost and in what time frame?” Greenpeace, she says, is not opposed to the concept of CCS, but to the “promise” of CCS. It’s diverting attention from real solutions.”

Greenpeace also has concerns that stored carbon could leak and pollute groundwater reserves. Other environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth (FOE) International are split. Some agree with Greenpeace, saying they are concerned that carbon capture and storage are a false promise. Other members of FOE see CCS as one tool in reducing emissions from existing coal power plants.

The United Nations Climate Panel says that CCS is one of the major ways to slow climate change by 2100, in addition to energy efficiency and shifts to renewable energy.

The Worldwatch Institute reports that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Defense Fund are already lobbying for CCS. The Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund are somewhat leery of the technology.

The problem with CCS technology is that it is still unproven, says Ben Block of the Worldwatch Institute. It may be technically feasible, but the costs and the timing are not known. Institute president Christopher Flavin says that unlike proven technologies such as solar and wind power, CCS should not be assumed to be a major solution to climate change.

A 2007 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) stated that the CCS program is not on track to achieve large-scale commercial operation for at least another 10 years. Meanwhile, the NRDC’s George Peridas says that as long as the American coal industry wants to build new plants, CCS is needed.

The conference, says Rochon, was a good mix of people — engineers and academics — with good intentions. But during the three-day event, the subject of “clean coal” was mentioned.

“There is no such thing as clean coal,” she says. “It’s an oxymoron.”

Environmentalists on all sides of the argument will be taking note of what transpires as the this week’s CCS conference draws to a close.

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