Another pipe dream

By Marc Lee
Progressive Economics Forum
January 13th, 2011

The Weyburn, Saskatchewan carbon capture and storage (CCS) project has sprung big leaks, and with it the argument that CCS can make dirty fossil fuels clean. The core idea behind CCS is taking CO2 emissions and piping them back underground where they are supposed to stay, forever. In the case of Weyburn, the CO2 comes from a coal plant across the border in North Dakota, and the injection is for “enhanced oil recovery”, or using the gas to re-pressurize the well to get more fossil fuel out.

Now, thanks to some diligent work by EcoJustice, there is good evidence that the CO2 is bubbling back up to the surface. Interestingly, it was the geological aspects of CCS that were supposed to be rock solid. The big flaws in CCS thinking were that projects are very costly, so the economics are not favourable (leading to the perverse outcome of governments pumping in billions in subsidies for pilots for an industry already raking in tens of billions in profits per year). And even under ideal conditions (like emissions from a coal-fired electricity plant), CCS could not capture 100% of emissions, and in cases where combustion is decentralized (a car engine or a home furnace) CCS could do very little to change the emissions status quo.

But such a broad-based failure is reminiscent of the confident statements about the risks of offshore oil drilling put to bed by the BP spill. Now with CCS, the industry is left without a fig leaf. The real bottom line is that fossil fuel consumption must be reduced and then eliminated if we are to have anything resembling human civilization for our grandkids, period. Will there come a government, anywhere, willing to say no to the oil and gas, or coal industries? In the short-term, I’m not optimistic. It may take more Katrina and BP scale disasters before change happens, and perhaps not even then.

In the meantime, the pipe dream of a technological fix that preserves the status quo is dead.

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