Several so-called CCS projects miss the storage part. When the carbon dioxide is used for industrial purposes or in enhanced oil recovery it will sooner or later be realesed into the atmosphere like the carbon dioxide in a fizzy drink. Photo: Flickr.com / Freddie Brown CC BY NC
CCS – from power plants to industrial plants
As the change from fossil fuels to renewable energy is gradually gaining wider acceptance, CCS is now seen more and more as a method mainly applicable to industrial processes.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has been at the centre of the Norwegian climate debate for several decades, since it was first introduced in the early 1990s. This has also made Norway interesting for other countries in the international debate about climate change mitigation measures. CCS has been one of two central pillars of the government’s climate policy. CO2 certificates bought in other countries to offset Norwegian emissions have been the other pillar. Both policies have been criticized by environmental organizations because they are seen to detract from the government’s efforts to reduce domestic emissions, for example in the transport sector.
There is much less focus on CCS in the Norwegian debate these days. The reason is that in 2013 the project to build a full-scale demonstration CCS plant was shelved. The CCS plant was to be built in conjunction with a gas-fired power plant at Mongstad on the west coast of Norway. The official reason was that the cost would be too high. Therefore it would not bring down the cost of building CCS plants, and would not encourage others to build more plants. The CCS project at Mongstad was the “moon landing” announced by Jens Stoltenberg in 2007, when he was prime minister. The red-green government resigned in 2013 after suffering an election defeat, and one of its last acts was to shut down the CCS project. Newspaper headlines said that “the moon landing had crashed”.
The right-wing government of Erna Solberg has not shelved the plan to build a full-scale CCS plant. For some time it has been looking more actively for opportunities to finance projects in the EU rather than in Norway. In early February 2015 the Norwegian government announced its ambition to become a full member of the “EU bubble” of collective responsibility for emission reduction targets. Norway is not member of the EU, but the oil sector and some of the industrial sector is already part of the ETS – the EU Emission Trading System. This was made possible by Norway’s membership in an association treaty called the European Economic Area – EEA. Full membership may, if it succeeds, make investments in CCS projects in the EU easier. However, there are not any CCS projects in the EU to invest in at the time being.
Three small pilot projects connected to CO2 emissions from a waste incineration plant in the capital Oslo and two industrial operations in Porsgrunn, southwest of Oslo, have been the most prominent initiatives recently. All three have been concluded. What the supporters of CCS are hoping for now is a decision by the government to finance a full-scale demonstration plant at one of the three sites.
The decision to build a full-scale CCS plant in Norway will not be made by the present government. Instead, it has ordered three more so-called “conceptual studies” of all three alternative sites. These will be concluded in the fall of 2017, after the parliamentary elections. So the present government will not have to make the decision. It can leave it to a new social-democratic government, if that is the result of the elections. According to the polls, this is a highly likely scenario.
The shifting focus from CCS for power plants to CCS for industrial processes and other non-energy activities is symptomatic of a broader, international trend. There is a growing understanding that CCS as a means of reducing CO2 emissions from power plants is not a viable solution. The change from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is gradually gaining wider acceptance as the main mitigation measure for power production. The focus has also changed in the international debate, and CCS is now seen as a method mainly applicable to industrial processes that at present lead to CO2 emissions. However, critics point out that many of the industrial products that at present cause CO2 emissions can be replaced with other products (wood instead of cement, for example), and industrial processes can be substituted with other processes that do not emit CO2. It would be a costly mistake to do both: first install a CCS plant, and then change the industrial process so it does not emit CO2.
In a feasibility study published in the summer of 2016, the conclusion was that it is technically feasible to realize a CCS chain (capture, transport and storage) in Norway. This would be based on transport by ship, and not by pipeline. Establishing a CO2 storage installation offshore is feasible, but increases the technical risks. The use of ships will make the system more flexible and increases the ability to take in smaller amounts of CO2 from different sources.
In a separate economic report from outside consultants the economic feasibility of the investment in a full-scale CCS plant has been evaluated. The report concluded that given certain conditions, the investment in a full-scale CCS plant in Norway would not be economically profitable from a societal point of view. Continued low prices on avoided CO2 emissions will mean that no further CCS plants will be built. The consultants therefore recommend that the project should not be carried out now. The government should instead wait until such projects can demonstrate the advantages to a greater degree. The conditions stipulated that the project’s contribution to CO2 removal will be small. This means it will have a low value in the analysis. This also means there will be no efficiency gains from the subsequent project, which would build on experience from the demonstration project, and because of this could be carried out at a lower cost. In a comment, the Norwegian oil and energy minister, Tord Lien, says that the consultants point to an important fact: “This is not a project mainly to reduce Norwegian emissions of CO2, but a contribution to the global development of a necessary climate technology. A Norwegian demonstration project must be carried out in a way so that it contributes to this development as much as possible.”
Taking into account that a previous project, the Mongstad CCS plant, was cancelled with the argument that the cost was too high and therefore not likely to inspire others to follow up with new projects; this comment may be a preparation for a later cancellation of the plans.
Maybe the most widely reported results from the Norwegian CCS experience are from the Sleipner project in the North Sea. Proponents of CCS point to Sleipner as proof that CCS is feasible on a large scale. Among the arguments used is that it has pumped a million cubic metres per year of CO2 down into a sandstone formation called the Utsira formation since 1996, with no sign of leakage. According to professor Peter M. Haugan at the Institute for Geophysics, University of Bergen, this may be just pure coincidence (or luck, in layman’s terms). A careful study of the reservoir and the cap rocks above the reservoir was not carried out prior to the start of pumping in 1996. A later study of the CO2 storage reservoir carried out in 2014 showed numerous cracks and so-called chimneys through the cap rock, some of them reaching all the way down to the sandstone, where the CO2 is stored. A huge crack was found 25 kilometres north of the storage area. This might just as well have turned out to have been above the storage area, but nobody knew that back in 1996.
Professor Haugan`s conclusion was that it is very costly to research a possible storage area in order to be sure that it will not leak. The process may take between three years at the best and ten years at the worst, before one can draw a conclusion. This conclusion is not guaranteed to be positive. A long and costly process may end with a “No”, that the area is not suitable for storage. This also means that CO2 storage areas are a resource with a limited supply, and must be treated as such. They should not be used for storage of CO2 that may be otherwise removed by other measures.
Statoil, which is the oil company with most experience in the North Sea, and the operator of Sleipner and the CCS project there, is optimistic about the long-term prospects of CO2 storage in the North Sea. However, at the time being, there are no large commercial CO2 storage facilities anywhere in the world. The term “commercial” refers here to a facility which accepts CO2 from several customers for storage. Nor are there any large-scale CCS plants anywhere in Europe that may need a place to store CO2. The price of CO2 is also far too low to make a commercial CO2 storage facility economically viable. The CO2 price must be at least USD 50/ton, while at present the price is just USD 6/ton of CO2.
The Sleipner project is only meant for the CO2 separated from the natural gas that is extracted from the reservoir deep under the seabed, and does not accept CO2 from other sources. An important reason for this is that the CO2 at Sleipner has very different properties from CO2 captured from exhaust gases at a power plant. The equipment that handles the CO2 is designed to suit these properties, and cannot handle CO2 with other properties. The CO2 at the Sleipner field arrives at the surface together with natural gas under very high pressure and at very low temperature, and the separation of the CO2 from the natural gas is tailored for this. The pressure makes it easier to return the CO2 down into the storage area.
These are the main reasons why the Sleipner project has only limited value as an example of what is possible regarding commercial storage of CO2 underground, especially in underground formations in the North Sea.
Quite often other types of CC projects are also lumped together with real CCS projects such as the Sleipner projects. This is causing confusion, and creates a false impression that there are many real CCS projects around the world. This impression is of course useful for the supporters of CCS, so they do not try to clear up the misunderstanding, and may even actively contribute to the confusion. The problem lies with projects that separate CO2 from exhaust gases, mainly from coal-fired power stations. These projects are examples of Carbon Capture – CC – but the Storage part is missing. The CO2 from many Carbon Capture plants is not stored underground with the express intention that it should remain there for a very long period of time. Instead, the CO2 is often used for industrial purposes, and eventually it is released back into the atmosphere. (Whenever you open a bottle of fizzy sugar drink, the CO2 in the bottle is released into the atmosphere.) Another use, which is quite common, is in Enhanced Oil Recovery – EOR. Here, the CO2 is pumped down into oil and gas reservoirs. This increases the pressure in the reservoir, and pushes out more oil and gas. The CO2 will also find its way back into the atmosphere from the oil and gas reservoirs, even if it may be delayed for some time. To call this “storage” is confusing, since the CO2 captured is not stored underground; it is only delayed on its way to the atmosphere. Lumping together CC and CCS projects and calling them all CCS is therefore dishonest, and does not reflect the real situation.
In recent years three such CC projects have been hailed as the next big CCS projects, although they are not. The most recent example has been touted as America’s first “clean coal” plant, as it captures CO2 from a coal combustion plant outside Houston, Texas. However, it is not a CCS plant, since the CO2 captured is piped 80 miles to the West Ranch oil field. There the CO2 is used to force additional oil from the ground. The same article also describes the Kemper Plant, located further east, in the state of Mississippi. This is a plant that gasifies lignite, a type of coal, into something called syngas, and removes some of the CO2 in the process. The syngas is burned for electricity generation, and CO2 from the exhaust gas is also stripped away. Together, the CO2 from both stages is then shipped to an oil field for EOR – to aid additional oil recovery. In the article, both plants are lumped together and called examples of CCS, although this is patently wrong. There is no permanent storage of the CO2; it will escape to the atmosphere after being used in EOR.
The Boundary Dam CC plant in Canada is a third example of a plant that captures CO2, and 90 per cent is used for EOR in an oil field not far away. A small part, 10 per cent, is used in an experimental storage facility.
A review of most of the plants that CCS supporters are lumping together and calling CCS plants would probably reveal the same facts: carbon capture is mainly done in order to get CO2 for use in EOR – pushing more oil out of the ground. This is not doing anything to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere, and so cannot be called a climate mitigation measure. Rather the opposite, in fact, since it can be argued that these plants increase the amount of oil available for burning. That is not helpful for the atmosphere, or for humanity and the ecosystems on this planet.