Should the United States bury global warming?
Yes – and quickly, says a major new report. Coal is key to America's energy future. But burning it is one of the biggest factors in climate change. So the solution is to capture the carbon dioxide it produces and store it underground.
Here's the challenge: To begin to curb climate change, the US needs to learn in less than a decade how to capture, compress, and then pump the carbon dioxide miles underground. The quantities are massive: the liquid CO2 equivalent of 20 million barrels a day – roughly equal to the amount of oil the US uses every day.
How to bury CO2 on that scale is no small question, says a panel of top researchers convened by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Without more detailed knowledge of the technology that captures it most cheaply, and the geology that would store all that CO2 without leaking, coal power will remain a huge engine of global warming, the researchers say in their report released Wednesday.
"The question will end up being: How much underground capacity can we use in injecting fairly large amounts of CO2," says Ernest Moniz, an MIT professor and report coauthor. "Will we be able to inject CO2 from 50 big power plants underground for decades? That's what we have to answer."
The challenge extends far beyond US borders. Coal-fired power plants send aloft more than 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide gas annually worldwide – about 1.5 billion tons in the US alone. Coal provides half of US electricity needs and that demand won't be met by renewable energy anytime soon, even under optimistic scenarios, the researchers say. Nuclear power holds promise but can't pull the whole load either, they add.
That leaves coal power set to "increase under any foreseeable scenario because it is cheap and abundant," the report says. More than 150 coal power plants are on the drawing boards in the US alone. China is building the equivalent of two coal-fired power plants a week.
That makes "carbon capture and sequestration," or CCS, "the critical enabling technology" for slashing CO2 emissions so coal can meet the world's energy needs.
Among the report's recommendations:
•To make CCS cost-competitive, nations should impose a tax or some equivalent mechanism that charges companies at least $30 for every ton of CO2 that they emit. That would lead to a significant reductions in greenhouse gases by 2050.
•Large-scale CCS demonstration projects should begin right away. At least three are needed in the US – and 10 worldwide – to test various geologic formations.
•Nations should close any loopholes that would allow utilities to build new coal plants that don't capture CO2, yet reap financial rewards.
"We have confidence that large-scale CO2 injection projects can be operated safely," the report says. At a minimum, such technology could halve America's carbon-dioxide emissions from coal by 2050.
Doing so would almost certainly require an investment of billions of dollars to build pipelines that ship compressed CO2 to geological formations around the country.
The research needed to create this infrastructure should go forward now, the scientists urge, even if the US hasn't settled on a specific climate-change policy.
In Congress, at least five pieces of global-warming legislation are pending. But neither Capitol Hill or the White House is acting quickly enough, the report says.
Last fall, the US Department of Energy announced $450 million in spending over 10 years on tests of underground capacity at seven locations. The department is also pursuing a $1 billion "FutureGen" coal plant that captures emissions and stores them underground. It's slated to be finished by 2012.
These issues "should be addressed with far more urgency than is evidenced today," the panel says.
Department of Energy officials respond that research is moving quickly and has identified enough suitable underground geology to store 200 years' worth of energy emissions.
"This administration is making significant investments in research and development of clean-coal technologies," says Megan Barnett, a DOE spokeswomen in a statement. She says the federal government is focused on "testing and further demonstrating carbon sequestration technology for broader commercial use."
Climate scientists unconnected to the study who have reviewed it say its findings are on target.
"The study is correct that we need to substantially ramp up the investment in order to make carbon capture and sequestration work," says John Holdren, a Harvard University professor and leading researcher on climate change. "If we don't, we're cooked."