Carbon capture and … more oil

September 8, 2009 at 8:01 am 1 comment

Carbon capture and storage – aka clean coal – has been promoted by the coal industry and governments as a major way to cut emissions from coal-fired energy generation.

Among the problems for its backers is that the technology is unproven, is prohibitively expensive and that no significant carbon capture and storage site actually exists.

One solution to the tricky dilemma has been hit upon by some truly enterprising energy companies – ditch the complicated storage bit and sell the captured carbon to another fossil-fuel company.

Some big US energy companies are planning to capture carbon emissions from coal power plants using grants from the US government.

Then they intend to sell the captured gas to oil companies who can pump it underground to improve oil extraction from its wells.

And so it becomes necessary to pollute the planet more to make carbon capture technology economically viable. Classic.

See the article below from the Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog.

By Keith Johnson

Clean-energy funding has been stealing a lot of headlines lately. Quietly, though, Big Coal is also grabbing government money to move forward with “clean coal.”

In recent weeks, there have been a spate of announcements from big utilities requesting hundreds of millions of dollars to work on capturing carbon-dioxide emissions from coal plants. Those include NRG Energy, Southern Company, and American Electric Power.

The projects center on the “capture” part of “carbon capture and storage,” the still-embryonic technology that would let coal plants catch their emissions and stick them underground. What’s happening to the “storage” part?

NRG is asking for federal money to try carbon-capture technology at a power plant near Houston. But rather than burying the emissions, NRG plans to compress the carbon dioxide and sell it to the oil industry so it can be used to juice oil wells and increase oil production. Southern Co. plans something very similar in Mississippi.

Yes, these are small-scale demonstration plants. And yes, utilities have to perfect carbon capture before doing anything else. And yes, the oil industry has been juicing wells for years—so-called enhanced oil recovery. Meanwhile, some utilities asking for federal funds do plan to store the stuff underground, including Southern Co. in Alabama and AEP in West Virginia.

But the question is: How clean is clean coal, really, if the emissions are used to extract more oil rather than being buried permanently underground?

Economics plays a big part. Burying the emissions costs money. Selling the emissions raises cash. NRG, for instance, figures selling carbon dioxide to oil companies will create “a revenue stream to offset a portion of the cost of the project.” Harvard recently concluded that the future cost of clean coal will depend to a certain extent whether the emissions are buried or sold.

This raises an interesting question for the future of clean coal: Is it preferable to help the oil industry produce more crude, if that means improving the economics—and viability—of carbon-capture technology? Or is the whole point of clean coal to clean up the environmental footprint of the entire energy sector—even if it costs more?


Entry filed under: Coal, greenwashing, oil.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. weayaya  |  September 8, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Clean coal is so obviously a contradiction in terms. The very concept is just another way in which the national and corporate interests which refuse to contemplate the real social and commercial changes necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change, can pull the green wool over the eyes of the world.

    Only real investment in alternative energy sources – wind, solar, waves, bio-thermal, etc – will get us out of the hole we have dug ourselves into by our over-reliance on fossil fuels.


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