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Carbon Capture: Friend or Foe?

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There are two basic views about fossil carbon – we can stop burning it or we can’t.

The more optimistic view is that we can somehow stop burning fossl fuels in the foreseeable future. In this view, pricing and regulation can reduce energy demand enough and induce enough source-switching that fossil fuels will be unnecessary. For this to happen we need political leadership. Canada is unfortunate at the moment in having one man who fiercely opposes action in charge of the ship.

On the other side, some ague that eventually all the carbon available will be burned: “the eventual accumulation will tend towards the full release of known fossil fuel reserves simply because the infrastructure exists to extract them and as such they will get used somewhere or at some time.” The extreme view suggests the entire fossil content of the tarsands will be burned.

If the carbon is going to be burned, then it has to be prevented from going into the atmosphere. For those who say we cant stop burning, Carbon Capture is the holy grail – the only way to save civilization.

The quantities that have to be captured are a bit hazy simply because there are enormous reserves that are not currently economic but could be, and there are almost certainly enormous quantities not yet discovered. I am pretty skeptical that we can extract all the hydrocarbons from the tar sands, burn then, capture the carbon and put it back somewhere. I am even more skeptical that we can ship the hydrocarbons to other countries and have them capture and sequester the CO2.

One reason for being skeptical is that one of the main ways to make CCS economic is is to sell captured CO2 to petroleum producers to help them extract more oil. That puts us on a treadmill where carbon capture is subsidizing carbon release! If one ton of CO2 going into a oil well resulted in a lot less than one ton of new CO2 the arithmetic might work. I don’t know if anyone knows what the equation is yet. In any case, there are not going to be enough oil wells to capture all the carbon from coal and natural gas.

The good news is that the people who want to promote Carbon Capture need carbon taxation to raise the price of emissions to make their technology economically feasible. That makes them good guys, whether or not their technology works.

I don’t think CCS will be economic, but the right response is probably to say ” We won’t knock the technology as long as you commit fully to high levels of carbon taxation across the board.” And of course I would minimize the subsidies for Carbon Capture. Carbon producers have more than enough incentive to pay for research that might save some of the value of their carbon assets.


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