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Carbon Ready

Sequestration science is far ahead of needed policy.

Pumping liquid carbon dioxide underground on a massive scale so it won’t contribute to global warming has been talked about for years. ­Howard Herzog, an MIT chemical engineer and the program manager of the Carbon Sequestration Initiative, an industrial consortium, says the most recent international conference on the subject–in Trondheim, Norway, earlier this year–made clear two things: First, the geological questions are being resolved favorably. Second, without policies that put a price on CO2, it’s unlikely that any sequestration facilities will actually get built.

Norway’s Sleipner natural-gas field has sequestered carbon dioxide underground for 10 years. (Courtesy of Statoil)

TR: How has interest in this field grown?

Herzog: When this international conference series started in 1992, it had 250 people and less than 100 papers. We had 1,000 people in Norway, and 500 papers.

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

Herzog: 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?

Herzog: 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?

Herzog: At the Norway meeting, the biggest category of papers was on geological storage. I think the work coming out says they are gaining a higher degree of confidence that this will work–and work well, if implemented with good practices.

TR: What else is emerging on the policy front?

Herzog: With a European carbon-trading system, several utilities have announced projects to build plants with CCS [carbon capture and storage], which is indicating at least at the high level 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.

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

Herzog: 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?

Herzog: 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.

SAMPLING OF LARGE-SCALE PROPOSED PROJECTS TO CAPTURE CO2

Company or consortium (location)Fossil fuelFate of CO2Possible openingBP (Scotland)Natural gasEnhanced oil recovery2009BP (California)Petroleum CokeEnhanced oil recovery2011Statoil/Shell (Norway)Natural gasEnhanced oil recovery2011FutureGen (United States)CoalSequestration2012RWE (U.K. and Germany)CoalSequestration2014 and 2016Monash (Australia)CoalEnhanced oil recovery2015Vattenfall (Germany)CoalSequestration2015

Source: MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment

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