Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Another Report Looks at Induced Seismicity from CCS

Stanford University researchers recently published a study claiming that CCS operations can induce significant seismic events and therefore do not offer a credible mitigation option (see Geologic Storage and Earthquakes?, 6/23).  Now the National Research Council (NRC) of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has offered its view on the subject.  In the prepublication version of a new report on induced seismicity and energy technologies, the NRC emphasizes that any connection between CCS and seismic activity is unclear: "The link of induced seismicity from CCS is currently difficult to accurately assess.  With only few small-scale commercial projects overseas and several small-scale demonstration projects underway in the United States, few data are available to evaluate the induced seismicity potential of this technology" (pp. 8-9).  To the extent that any risk might exist, it could be minimized by maintaining reservoir pore pressure close to its original value.  There is currently no record of any "felt induced events" connected to any CCS operations in the US, nor to any of the approximately 13,000 EOR projects across the country.  The NRC report suggests, as before, that while precautions should always be taken, risks are insufficient to prevent the further development and deployment of CCS technology.

Monday, July 30, 2012

FEMA Staff Launch Unofficial Biochar Initiative

Staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the US national disaster response agency, have launched an effort to integrate biochar into official FEMA activities.  This new group, calling itself the FEMA BioChar Initiative (FBCI), is pursuing two specific goals: first, to make post-disaster debris management activities that entail collection of biomass feedstocks for biochar manufacture eligible for FEMA funding; and second, to incorporate biochar cost-benefit analyses within FEMA decision-making procedures and processes.  The FBCI is not formally affiliated with FEMA, but consists of FEMA employees working in their personal capacities along with other biochar industry stakeholders.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

New York Adopts CCS Performance Standard

Last March, the US EPA proposed a New Source Performance Standard (NSPS) for new power plants which would effectively require that coal-fired units come equipped with CCS technology (see Calls Intensify for More Global Action on CCS, 5/16).  Now the state of New York has adopted an even tougher standard, beating the federal government to the punch.  Specifically, in June the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) adopted regulation 6 NYCRR Part 251 (as mandated by the Power NY Act of 2011).  This rule requires most new or expanded fossil-fuel fired plants to meet either an emission output limit of 925 pounds of CO2 per MWh, or a fuel input limit of 120 pounds per MMBTU (by contrast, the draft national NSPS would impose a limit of 1,000 pounds of CO2 per MWh).  The practical effect of this new regulation will be to require new coal-fired plants and significant coal plant expansions in New York to be fitted with CCS.  The rule came into force on July 12.

As for the proposed NSPS, an extended public comment period is currently underway.

Friday, July 27, 2012

German Greens Weigh In

The German Green Party has added its voice to the burgeoning conversation about climate engineering in Germany.  On Monday, the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a Green think-tank, released a report titled "Geo-Engineering: Is There a Plan(et) B?."  While the report is deeply skeptical toward geoengineering, it also calls for broad public dialogue and opposes any blanket prohibition on research. Indeed, the report suggests 8 "policy guidelines" to help shape future developments in the field (pp. 52-54, English translations):

  1. Governance issues must always be resolved before use.
  2. Independent testing is essential.
  3. There must be public participation in decisions about geo-engineering.
  4. Research must be transparent and results must be accessible.
  5. Geo-engineering should not be driven by economic profit.
  6. A binding international moratorium on applications and experiments along the lines of that suggested by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is necessary.
  7. International cooperation in research is also needed.
  8. The best climate policy is CO2 emissions avoidance.
At first glance, guideline 6 supporting a CBD-type moratorium might seem inconsistent with the other recommendations.  But such apparent contradiction is solely an artifact of the erroneous view propagated by ETC Group and others that the CBD moratorium is an outright ban, which it is not.  The CBD moratorium is a voluntary, temporary, and conditional suspension of large-scale and commercial geoengineering activities instituted in the absence of a governing international regulatory framework (see The Meaning of the Moratorium, 10/31/10).  The articulation of policy guidelines for geoengineering research and development that incorporate a limited, CBD-style moratorium undercuts any claim that a definitive ban has been adopted by the international community.  Moreover, the formulation of such guidelines by no less a natural ally than the German Green Party must cause considerable consternation among ETC Group and its friends.

Developments in Germany over the past few weeks seem to be turning conventional wisdom on its head.  One might expect to see the conservative CDU, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the allied, free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP) cautiously supportive of geoengineering research, and the SPD and Greens implacably opposed.  Instead, the governing CDU appears markedly unenthusiastic about federally-funded research, while the SPD and Greens advocate limited but meaningful research on the grounds that our worst option is to make decisions about geoengineering in ignorance of its full range of costs and benefits.  Perhaps this exchange will prompt the CDU to take a more sophisticated and proactive stance on climate engineering.

(Thanks to Jesse Reynolds for bringing the HBF report to my attention.)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

German Government Preserves Options in Response to SPD

The German federal government, led by the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has formally responded to a long list of questions about geoengineering recently submitted by the opposition SPD (see German SPD Gives Careful Consideration to Geoengineering, 6/20).  The government was generally noncommittal in its answers, noting the lack of current or planned research initiatives, pleading ignorance with regard to many governance issues, and refusing to take definitive positions.  Following are some highlights (all English translations):

  • In response to question 7 ("What role does the Federal Government see for geoengineering in the limitation of global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era?"), the government states that it "has no defined role for geoengineering in order to limit global warming."  This non-answer is typical of many responses.
  • In response to question 9 ("Does the Federal Government believe that geoengineering entails many risks and cannot replace the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions?"), the government affirms that it "shares this view."
  • In response to question 18 ("How does the Federal Government view the risks of geoengineering compared to the risks of climate change, and does the Federal Government believe that sufficient scientific evidence is available for an appropriate evaluation?"), the government "recognizes the need for research on geoengineering, involving suitable, appropriate expertise to evaluate the effects, consequences, and risks of geoengineering."  In relation to this, the government later describes itself as "critical" of research moratoriums (question 43).
  • Throughout its responses the government clearly aligns itself with last year's agnostic BMBF report (see Two New German Government Reports, 12/19/11), reflecting a combination of studied neutrality and cautious receptivity.
The government repeatedly states that no federally-funded research is underway now or envisioned for the future.  This lack of government research on geoengineering has been criticized by the SPD in reaction to these official government responses.  Rene Rospel, deputy spokesman for SPD research policy, described the responses as "Thin answers with little substance."  "It is surprising and regrettable that so little happens in the field," he continued.  "Germany must not be clueless when new technologies are being used elsewhere" (English translation).  This is consistent with the considered opposition to geoengineering previously exhibited by the SPD.  The absence of government-funded research also contrasts sharply with the growing involvement of German universities and other institutions in pan-European research projects (see Update on EU-Funded Research, 7/19).

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Second Chance for OIF?

Following the LOHAFEX misadventure and a string of studies casting doubt on its efficacy (see IOC Releases Ocean Fertilization Policy Guide, 1/26/11), ocean iron fertilization (OIF) has recently lost favor as a potential CO2 removal technique.  A new study published in Nature, however, suggests that OIF may have a climate remediation role to play after all.  In 2004, the European Iron Fertilization Experiment (EIFEX), led by Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (who also led the LOHAFEX expedition), conducted tests using iron sulphate in the Southern Ocean.  Results from those tests indicate that the remains of at least half of the ensuing diatom phytoplankton bloom sank to a depth of at least 1,000 meters, thereby confirming the sequestration hypothesis central to OIF.  (It is unclear why it took more than eight years to publish these results.)

But environmental concerns persist regarding the effects of ocean fertilization on marine food webs and ocean chemistry.  And doubts remain about the scale of carbon reductions OIF can deliver.  "It's too little to be the solution, but it's too much to ignore," says Smetacek.

Friday, July 20, 2012

All Clear at Weyburn

In February 2011, Cenovus Energy entered into an agreement with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Energy and Resources (MER) to commission a targeted site assessment at the Weyburn oilfield it operates on behalf of 23 other partners.  Cenovus conducts CO2 EOR at the Weyburn site, and neighboring landowners had raised concerns about possible CO2 leakage and contamination.  Now the results of that assessment have been made public, and the company and its EOR operations have received a clean bill of health.

According to the study, led by TRIUM Environmental, "The findings of the investigation do not indicate the presence of anthropogenic CO2 from the Weyburn reservoir in either the soils or wetlands of SW30-5-13W2 [i.e., the disputed portion of the Weyburn unit].  The presence of CO2 in the soil of SW30-5-13W2 is a result of a naturally and seasonally variable soil respiration process" (p. 1).  This is proven conclusively using carbon-14 dating.  The assessment also demonstrates a total absence of hydrocarbons in local surface water, and verifies the integrity of associated oilfield infrastructure.  Results were independently confirmed by researchers from both the IEA GHG Weyburn CO2 Monitoring & Storage Project and the Petroleum Technology Research Center (PTRC).

Thursday, July 19, 2012

More Questionable Reporting from the Guardian

Last summer, I commented on the hostile tenor of reporting on geoengineering by the Guardian newspaper (see The Guardian Against Geoengineering?, 6/16/11).  Now that coverage has gone from being biased to just plain bad.  In a story published Tuesday titled "US Geoengineers to Spray Sun-Reflecting Chemicals from Balloon," a Guardian reporter stated that "Two Harvard engineers are to spray sun-reflecting chemical particles into the atmosphere to artificially cool the planet, using a balloon flying 80,000 feet over Fort Sumner, New Mexico."  This experiment, the story continues, "will take place within a year and involve release of tens or hundreds of kilograms of particles to measure the impacts on ozone chemistry."

The problem with this report is that, quite simply, no such experiment is planned.  Nor is funding in place.  Nor has a proposal been written.  The assertions regarding schedule ("within a year"), location ("Fort Sumner, New Mexico"), and method ("release of tens or hundreds of kilograms of particles") are all false.  As David Keith, one of the engineers cited, succinctly put it, "The story is substantially fabricated" (emphasis original).  (In addition to these inaccuracies, the story also mischaracterizes the SPICE research project and uncritically presents a global map of geoengineering activities produced by the ETC Group.)

The Guardian is entitled to its opinion about geoengineering.  But it is not entitled to make up facts.  This story falls far short of any reasonable set of journalistic standards, and ought to be corrected in full.  The geoengineering debate, including its critics, deserves better than this.

Update on EU-Funded Research

Three important geoengineering research projects supported by EU funds have recently been gaining ground.  The first is known as Implications and Risks of Novel Options to Limit Climate Change, or IMPLICC.  IMPLICC is an SRM modeling collaboration involving five research centers in France, Germany, and Norway, led by the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg.  The project is funded by the EU Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS) Seventh Framework Program (FP7).  At a May meeting in Mainz, project participants reported on modeling results, notably the apparent nonuniformity of global temperature reductions resulting from stratospheric aerosol injections.

The second project, the European Trans-disciplinary Assessment of Climate Engineering or EuTRACE, is also supported by FP7 funds.  EuTRACE is intended to provide a comprehensive, interdisciplinary assessment of geoengineering, focusing in particular on "the long-absent European perspective, examining how CE [climate engineering] relates to the ambitious climate targets of the EU and its member states."  The project, coordinated by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, will bring together natural and social scientists from fourteen institutions spanning five European countries, who will conclude their work in 2014.

Lastly, the "Biochar as Option for Sustainable Resource Management" project is supported by the EU Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) program.  This project aims to strengthen coordination among disparate European biochar research efforts through enhanced training, increased engagement, and improved network capabilities.  The project will entail participation by researchers and other stakeholders from several non-EU countries, including Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Israel.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

David Suzuki Urges Opposition to CCS

Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki wrote a commentary last week in which he called for "renewable energy, not carbon capture and storage."  Suzuki bases his opposition to CCS on familiar grounds including high cost, induced seismicity, and problematic liability.  He concludes that "We need to consider many solutions to deal with waste, pollution, and global warming, but not risky and expensive schemes that serve only to enable our continued addiction to fossil fuels.  Our best bet is to reduce waste and emissions.  And rather than dumping money into schemes like carbon capture and storage, we should invest in renewable energy."

However, in regard to the objections raised by Suzuki, on closer examination there is less than meets the eye.  Theoretical and empirical evidence of a link between CCS and induced seismicity is weak to nonexistent (see Geologic Storage and Earthquakes?, 6/23).  Costs are high indeed, but innovative measures such as power plant CO2 performance standards offer ways around this obstacle (see Calls Intensify for More Global Action on CCS, 5/16).  And recent research suggests that the liability issue is much less troublesome than previously thought (see New Study Quantifies Risks from CCS, 6/27).

The world economy is based on investments in fossil fuel consumption.  Past investments represent sunk costs that will not simply be abandoned as stranded assets.  Future investments are being planned now, and must take into account a near-zero cost of carbon given a moribund EU ETS, the uninspiring outcomes of Durban and Rio+20, etc.  Furthermore, CCS transport and storage technologies will likely prove critical to several promising CDR approaches such as DAC and BECCS.  Given the economic and ecological realities we face, a wholesale switch to renewables now is neither wise nor possible.  CCS must be part of the mix, and to dismiss it out of hand qualifies as both risky and short-sighted.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

New Investments in CCS Demonstration, Research

The Canadian government has announced a CAD$14.5 million ($14.3 million) investment in a CCS/EOR demonstration plant located in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan.  The facility, owned and operated by Husky Energy, combines carbon captured at an ethanol plant (250 metric tons of CO2 per day) with EOR conducted at nearby heavy oil fields.  This investment is part of the federal government's CAD$151 million ($149 million) ecoENERGY Technology Initiative.  The Saskatchewan government also provides small-scale funding for the Husky Energy plant under its Petroleum Research Incentive Program.

Elsewhere, the University of Edinburgh has opened the CO2-EOR Center, dedicated to research into EOR methods for use in the North Sea.  The institute is funded by the Scottish government, Scottish Enterprise, and 2CO, a CCS developer.  Research at the CO2-EOR Center will be conducted as part of the Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage project, operated jointly by the University of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt University, and the British Geological Survey.