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Dispelling Carbon Capture’s Scaling Myth

Pipelines needed to deploy CCS technology pose little impediment, according to an overlooked national lab study.
January 7, 2009

Critics of carbon capture and storage (CCS) often deride the scale of infrastructure required for CCS to make a meaningful dent in global carbon emissions–not just in equipment to capture emissions at power plants (and other “point” sources of CO2), but also in pipelines to move the captured CO2 to storage sites. But an overlooked recent study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), based in Richland, WA, makes a convincing case that, at least where pipelines are concerned, the scale of CO2 infrastructure required is well within the realm of current industrial activities.

First, to the critics, who like to compare (unfavorably) CCS infrastructure to the heft of the oil industry: take Joseph Romm, who writes in his Climate Progress blog that “we need to put in place a dozen or so clean energy ‘stabilization wedges’ by mid-century to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes … For CCS to be even one of those would require a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to the current flow of oil out of the ground. That would require, by itself, re-creating the equivalent of the planet’s entire oil delivery infrastructure, no mean feat.” (Emphasis by Romm.)

The PNNL study determines that the feat is feasible not by taking issue with estimates such as Romm’s, but rather by projecting a realistic implementation path for CCS technology. The research, presented by PNNL senior scientist Jim Dooley at November’s 9th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Technologies, first projects how rapidly CCS could grow in the United States under aggressive climate policies. Then it compares the rate at which pipelines would need to be constructed with the speed with which natural-gas pipelines were built.

PNNL’s conclusion: “The sheer scale of the required infrastructure should not be seen as representing a significant impediment to US deployment of CCS technologies.”

PNNL estimates that CO2 pipeline build (red or blue) will look slim compared with natural-gas pipeline growth (yellow). [Larger image]
Credit: PNNL

Between 11,000 and 23,000 miles of dedicated CO2 pipeline would need to be laid in the United States before 2050, according to PNNL’s estimates, in addition to the 3,900 miles already in place (which carry mostly naturally occurring CO2 used to stimulate production from aging oil wells). The graph above, from Dooley’s presentation, breaks down the projected CO2 pipeline mileage by decade of installation (see red and blue bars) and shows just how puny it is relative to the U.S. natural-gas network (yellow bars).

MIT’s 2007 Future of Coal report also favorably compared CCS infrastructure with natural-gas pipelines. The MIT report estimated that capturing all of the roughly 1.5 billion tons per year of CO2 generated by coal-burning power plants in the United States would generate a CO2 flow with just one-third of the volume of the natural gas flowing in the U.S. gas pipeline system.

That scale is certainly immense. But so is the challenge posed by climate change.

Peter Fairley, an independent journalist and editor of the Web journal Carbon-Nation, tracks energy innovation around the globe, from the solar-powered villages of Bolivia’s Cordillera to China’s mechanizing coalfields.

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