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SPEA publication addresses challenges of carbon capture and storage

May 29, 2009

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is a promising tool that may help the United States meet future energy needs while controlling emissions of greenhouse gases linked to climate change, Indiana University researchers say in a new policy brief.

But CCS presents policy and technical challenges that must be addressed if the nation is to make effective use of its plentiful supplies of coal, researchers say in the May 2009 issue of SPEA Insights.

Authors of the brief are A. James Barnes, professor and former dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington, and Kenneth R. Richards, associate professor in the school. The complete document can be seen at http://www.indiana.edu/~spea/pubs/SPEA_insights_May09.pdf.

"Policy analysts, social scientists and lawyers must work with scientists, engineers and technologists to design public policies that will encourage the demonstration of CCS systems that are safe, effective and affordable," Barnes and Richards write.

To help guide the implementation of CCS, they recommend:

  • CCS should be deployed only if it is a cost-effective solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- or as a "backstop" to less expensive measures.
  • Congress must be careful in designing incentives for CCS, making sure it doesn't create measures that lead companies to overproduce electricity.
  • States need to be involved in developing CCS regulations, particularly with regard to property rights, safety and liability.
  • Policy makers must be sensitive to the complex politics of CCS, including the competing interests of geographic regions and business sectors.

The U.S. now generates half of its electricity by burning coal, which produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Recent bills in Congress, as well as President Barack Obama's program, call for reducing CO2 emissions by 80 to 85 percent by 2050. Conservation, nuclear power, natural gas and renewable sources can help meet future needs, but most experts agree that coal will continue to play an important role.

That creates a need for CCS, which involves capturing carbon dioxide from electrical power plants, transporting it to a storage site and injecting the gas into a safe location underground. There are currently no large-scale, commercial demonstrations of CCS at any coal-powered generating facility. However, the petroleum industry has perfected many of its technical aspects by using CO2 injection for the enhanced recovery of oil and gas from previously developed well fields.

"Building on this experience, and with adequate research, development and real-world demonstration, it is possible to successfully deploy CCS on a large-scale basis," Barnes and Richards conclude.

While CCS may not currently be cost-effective, the authors say, it may make sense to support development of the technology to learn about its costs, challenges and potential improvements. But projects underwritten by the government should include rigorous and open evaluation systems, with data made available to all interested stakeholders.

In the area of political complexity, Barnes and Richards note that initial efforts to develop CCS are taking place in the industrial Midwest, rather than in regions where coal is controversial. They say that the stance taken toward CCS by environmental groups is likely to be critical to the future of the technology.