Capturing Carbon Pipe Dreams

If you enjoy the benefits of affordable and readily available electricity, a new report from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) may spur you to press your elected representatives for a reassessment of climate alarmism.

Entitled “Pipelines for Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Control: Network Needs and Cost Uncertainties” (Jan. 10, 2008), the report sounds dull enough, but its contents simply undermine the notion that we’ll be reducing CO2 emissions anytime soon.

More than 70 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. involves the burning of coal, natural gas or oil, and their attendant emissions of CO2. This reliance on fossil fuels is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Though nuclear power provides about 20 percent of U.S. electricity and could, in an environment of rational public discourse, provide much more, nuke plants in the real world are difficult to site and expensive to build because of anti-nuclear activists who hype safety concerns and foment NIMBY-ism. Other sources of electrical generation — such as hydroelectric, solar and wind — offered limited potential with solar and wind power only as marginal sources.

So if we like electricity, we’re stuck with CO2-emitting fuels, mostly coal.

For those concerned about CO2 emissions, the question then becomes, can CO2 emissions be captured and sequestered (permanently stored) so that they never make it into the atmosphere to cause the much-dreaded global warming.

One proposed solution is to construct a nationwide grid of pipelines from sources of CO2, like coal- and gas-fired electric power plants, so that the emissions can be captured and transported for storage in underground geological repositories like saline formations or depleted oil and gas fields.

Is this possible and what would it cost?

The CRS report works out several hypothetical examples of CO2 pipelines running from the 11 largest CO2 emitters in Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — all coal-fired electric power plants emitting over 9 million metric tons of CO2 annually — to potential regional sequestration sites.

In the least expensive scenario, it would take an estimated $66 million to build pipelines each with a capacity of 10 million tons of CO2 annually from the 11 plants to a nearby geological formation called Rose Run. Unfortunately as the CRS points out, Rose Run may not have the capacity to accept all the CO2 produced and injecting pressurized CO2 may cause minor earthquakes. While the earthquakes may create additional capacity for CO2, they may also produce permanent conduits for leakage.

Unmineable coal beds in the same general area as Rose Run are another option but their capacity falls way short of Rose Run’s.

The 10 largest local depleted oil and gas fields have an average capacity of 251 million tons of CO2, but the 30-year CO2 output of the 11 plants is estimated to range from 270 million tons to 491 million tons at current emission levels. Not only is their capacity lacking, but the oil and gas fields pose a significant risk of leaking.

A final option considered by CRS is pipelining the CO2 hundreds of miles west to a geological area in Michigan, Indiana and western Ohio known as the Mt. Sermon formation. The average cost of building each pipeline would be $150 million.

That’s a bargain, however, compared to a geographically disadvantaged area like North Carolina. A Duke University study estimated it would cost $5 billion to transport CO2 from North Carolina’s electric utilities to sequestration sites in other states.

The CRS report spotlighted an August 2007 decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to reject a 450-mile pipeline to a Canadian oil field costing over $635 million as “not in the public interest.”

But perhaps the most sobering assessment cited by the CRS comes from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group that has the official lead in selling climate hysteria. The IPCC estimates that the per ton cost of CO2 mitigation ranges from $31 to $71 for a coal-fired power plant.

Given that one ton of coal produces about 1.8 tons of CO2 and using the midpoint of the IPCC’s estimated cost range ($51), the per ton cost of CO2 mitigation for one ton of coal is $92. As the current price of coal is about $10 per ton and the price of transporting that coal to an electric power plant averages about $25, capturing and sequestering CO2 could effectively raise the effective price of coal to power plants from $35 per ton to $127 per ton — a 362 percent increase.

That sort of increase would likely dramatically impact electric bills. Since about one-third of the cost of electricity is fuel, tripling fuel costs could double the price of coal-fired electricity. To the extent that higher coal costs drove power plants to switch from coal to natural gas, the additional demand for gas would force those prices higher as well. By the way, electricity produced from natural gas already costs about four times as much as from coal.

All this is quite unfortunate for the many federal, state and local officials who have painted themselves into Al Gore’s corner. The only way out of the climate panic that they’ve helped to foment is to take another look at the science.

After all, who would want to be the politician-on-duty when electric bills double or, worse, the lights go out for those who can’t afford such increases?