Sunday, February 16, 2014

Capturing the future for fossil fuels

A few years ago, one of the big new hopes for the extractive and fossil fuel industries was the technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The aim is very simple, and encapsulated fairly well in the name – to capture the carbon that is released from otherwise polluting power plants, and to store it in porous rocks underground. Despite generating quite a buzz during the Copenhagen climate change conference back in 2009, things have been quiet for CCS for a few years – originally because the world was still trying to commit itself to renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, and more recently because we’ve become obsessed with new and more difficult to extract forms of those same fossil fuels, such as tar sands and fracked natural gas. However, things may be getting back on track for CCS – a recent report in The Guardian suggested that the British CCS industry alone could be worth £35 billion by 2030. Extrapolate that too much bigger countries like the US and China, and countries with similar or growing levels of emissions like Germany, Japan, Canada, and Australia, and the amount of money at stake could be utterly astronomical.

Initially, CCS actually sounds like a pretty decent idea. If we have the technology to capture our emissions and store them somewhere safe, away from the earth’s atmosphere where they are causing so much damage, why shouldn’t we do it? After all, we can’t switch immediately from fossil fuels to a completely renewable energy economy, so we’ll have to do something to cope in the meantime, right? Unfortunately, there’s a couple of sets of problems with this – practical problems, and theoretical problems. On the practical side of things is the fact that CCS doesn’t actually get rid of the emissions, it just buries them – out of sight, out of mind. An unforeseen leakage, a natural disaster like an earthquake, the ground being dug up for some reason – any of these things could easily see the carbon released back into the atmosphere, completely negating any benefits that CCS might have temporarily provided.
But perhaps more important are the theoretical problems, the ways in which CCS provides us with the wrong mindset to approach the problems of the coming century. Essentially, CCS is not just a way of dealing with the inevitable problems of fossil fuels while we switch over to a renewable economy. CCS is a crutch on which to prop up the existing fossil fuel system in order to avoid switching to renewable energy. Once the carbon is buried in the ground, politicians will claim the problem is solved, and there’s no need to do anything to help develop new, efficient, or renewable technologies – a position which, of course, helps their friends and funders in the fossil fuel industry.
The fossil fuel industry will continue to be privileged, and the other issues around fuel extraction will be ignored. The destruction that comes to communities where fracking is taking place; the impact of tar sands developments on Canadian First Nations; the upcoming problem of peak oil; the continued wars in the Middle East in the name of resource grabbing – all of these things will be pushed to the side and ignored in the name of continued profit if CCS allows us to make oil, gas, and coal seem ‘green’. This would be a terrible shame – fossil fuels are perhaps the most destructive substance on earth today, and it’s absolutely vital that the kind of work we do at NRGLab to develop efficiencies and alternatives isn’t ignored in favour of keeping the existing, damaging economic status quo.

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