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Needed: A Price on Carbon

Sequestration technology is increasingly ready for prime time, but the required policy lags behind, says MIT expert Howard Herzog.

Pumping carbon dioxide underground on a massive scale has been talked about for years; the idea is to “sequester” the greenhouse gas so that it won’t enter the atmosphere and contribute to global warming and climate change.

Norway’s Sleipner natural-gas field has sequestered carbon dioxide in underground formations beneath the sea floor for 10 years. (Source: Statoil)

Technology Review asked Howard Herzog, an MIT chemical engineer and program manager of the Carbon Sequestration Initiative, an industrial consortium, for his take on the subject.

His appraisal of the state of sequestration: first, the geological questions are being resolved favorably; second, without policies that put a price on carbon, it is unlikely that more sequestration facilities will actually get built.

The United States is the world’s leading carbon dioxide emitter, but the Bush administration opposes regulating carbon dioxide. Herzog says he expects the technology case for carbon sequestration to be further solidified in the next few years, in time for the next administration in Washington to take action.

Technology Review: Why has interest in this field grown so rapidly?

Howard Herzog: When you look at the possible ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, there are only a handful of ways you can go: non-carbon energy, improved efficiency, and then of course if you continue using fossil fuels – which it looks like we will – to capture and store the carbon dioxide.

TR: Norway was the first country to enact a CO2 tax, in 1991. How has that played out?

HH: It sent a signal to see if there was a way to reduce CO2 emissions and resulted in a large project in the North Sea to sequester carbon dioxide from a natural-gas field.

TR: What do we know about its performance?

HH: There is no indication of any leaks, and they’ve done some seismic tests that show the CO2 is staying in the underground geological formation. The amount of monitoring hasn’t been such that you can say for certain there are no leaks – but none has been detected.

TR: What about the question of geologic suitability generally – what do we know about the risk of carbon dioxide leaking out?

HH: The reducing of uncertainly with geological storage has come a long way in the last couple of years. I think the work coming out says [researchers] are gaining a higher degree of confidence that this will work – and work well, if implemented with good practices. We are moving down the road toward understanding what those good practices are. And I think over the next couple of years we are going to see a lot more pilot tests happening.

TR: What else is emerging on the policy front?

HH: With a European carbon-trading system, several utilities have announced projects to build plants with CCS [carbon capture and storage], which is indicating that those price signals were enough to induce serious interest. Outside of Europe, despite the lack of specific policies, there is still a lot of interest in this technology. People feel that over the next 10 years, policies will be put in place throughout most of the developed world.

SAMPLING OF LARGE-SCALE PROPOSED PROJECTS TO CAPTURE CO2

Company or consortium (location) Fossil fuel Fate of CO2 Possible opening
BP (Scotland) Natural gas Enhanced oil recovery 2009
BP (California) Petroleum Coke Enhanced oil recovery 2011
Statoil/Shell (Norway) Natural gas Enhanced oil recovery 2011
FutureGen (United States) Coal Sequestration 2012
RWE (U.K. and Germany) Coal Sequestration 2014 and 2016
Monash (Australia) Coal Enhanced oil recovery 2015
Vattenfall (Germany) Coal Sequestration 2015

Source: MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment/>

TR: What will it take to get sequestration projects built?

HH: Utilities are not going to build them unless the policy is in place or they are really sure that policy is imminent. It’s easier to announce projects than build them.

TR: How about in the United States?

HH: In the next three years, the chances of anything happening are negligible. But within the next 10 years, I think the chances are greater than 50/50 that we’ll have some kind of carbon policy. I think no matter who is elected in the 2008 election, there will be changes.

TR: You are organizing the next international conference, scheduled for November 2008 in Washington – just after the presidential election. Is the timing and location a coincidence?

HH: It was more that hotels are easier to get in November than in September and October. But being at the time of a change in administration means it is going to be very visible. It will be important at the next meeting that this technology is ready to go. And hopefully policies will then be crafted so we can move ahead with deployment.

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