China could become a world leader in the development and deployment of technology to capture carbon dioxide and store it underground, the Natural Resources Defense Council finds in a sweeping new report out today.
The Asian economic giant -- which recently surpassed the United States to become the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases -- already has the technical know-how and key geologic features to deploy large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects.
With technical assistance, cooperation from the United States, and investment from both the Chinese government and international investors, researchers found, the coal-dependent country could sequester as much as 3,066 gigatons of CO2. Meanwhile, they argue, the United States is "well-positioned to play a key role" in developing and deploying CCS technology in China.
"China is prime territory for CCS," said George Peridas, a science fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a lead author of the report.
President Obama is due to visit China in November, and climate change is expected to top the agenda. Together, the United States and China account for nearly half of global warming pollution, yet neither has been willing to slash emissions before the other. Since January, the Obama administration has made Sino-American climate talks a priority, trying to find areas of common interest where the United States and China might be able to collaborate.
In July, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced a $15 million joint U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center that will work to boost research and development of technologies that improve energy efficiency, carbon sequestration and low-emissions vehicles. Peridas and others said the DOE has since been soliciting input from experts about what specific initial projects the center could launch.
Peridas said the study -- which identifies at least 130 megatons annually of emissions from high-purity CO2 sources like ammonia and liquid hydrocarbon facilities that could be sequestered for $10 to $20 per ton less than in Western countries -- is aimed at influencing policymakers over the coming weeks.
Purest CO2 sources go first
"If you want maximum bang for your buck, you should be looking at these high-purity CO2 streams," he said. "It can be done quickly, it can be done cheaply, and it can be done at sufficient scale to gain expertise on the ground."
"We hope that during Obama's trip, that opportunities to take action will emerge," added Julio Friedman, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who contributed to the report. He noted that China has 550,000 megawatts of coal-fired power.
"That is an enormous challenge, but it also is an enormous prize," Friedman said. The report notes that even under the most aggressive policies to encourage energy efficiency, renewable energy and even carbon intensity targets, coal will continue to meet almost half of China's energy demand through 2030 and a "significant portion for the foreseeable future."
"The country is hungry for energy," Jorma Ollila, chairman of Royal Dutch Shell PLC and incoming chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said yesterday. He noted that China last year alone commissioned 60 "mega-sized power stations."
"There is no way we can get meaningful control of carbon emissions unless we are successful in establishing CCS technology," Ollila said at the National Press Club. "The role of CCS in countries like China, which are heavily coal-dependent, is crucial."
Specifically, the NRDC study looks at seven near-term CCS possibilities in China: two oil and gas basins that researchers found show promising opportunities for enhanced oil and gas recovery; four integrated gasification combined cycle projects; and one direct coal liquefaction project. All of the projects plan to feature carbon capture and storage.
Engineering and technology gaps need to be filled
But the country also needs technical assistance and money -- specifically, researchers noted, to fill gaps in areas like subsurface geological engineering; long-term monitoring and verification; long-distance CO2 transportation infrastructure; and developing a regulatory system to ensure the safety and effectiveness of CCS projects.
The study comes amid a flurry of activity worldwide examining the capacity for CCS in developing countries. An International Energy Agency road map out this week found the world will need to develop 3,400 large-scale plants by midcentury, with about 65 percent located in the fast-emerging economies responsible for the bulk of new greenhouse gas emissions.
The NRDC report -- done in collaboration with the Livermore lab, the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Rock and Soil Mechanics, and the Washington, D.C.-based think tanks World Resources Institute and Clean Air Task Force -- also draws in part on data gathered from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and reprinted in a summary earlier this week.
The full report is due later this year and finds that China has enough carbon dioxide sequestration capacity in its geology to sequester up to 100 years or more of emissions from most of its major stationary sources.
Many CO2 sources, but robust storage capacity
The capacity -- 2,300 metric gigatons -- is roughly 10 times more than older estimates have found, said James Dooley, an engineer at the Joint Global Change Research Institute and a co-author of the report. The five-year study, conducted through a collaboration between PNNL and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is the first comprehensive assessment of carbon dioxide sequestration potential in China, he said.
"It's large. It's really, really large, the capacity," Dooley said. "We were really quite happy when we saw the results."
Dooley said the new data -- some of which were previously not available -- strengthens the case for CCS in China. They also map 1,623 stationary sources of carbon dioxide in the country, from power plants to cement factories. More than 90 percent of major emissions sources are located within 100 miles of a potential storage basin, and more than 80 percent are within 50 miles of one, eliminating the need to build long-distance pipelines, the study found.
That has economic implications, Dooley said.
Combining those data with information on transportation, construction, labor and other costs, the researchers calculated that the cost of transporting and sequestering carbon dioxide from the "vast majority" of those sources would be between $2 and $6 per ton.
Robert Burruss, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said there is a potentially big difference between theoretical capacity and how much storage can actually be done. It's similar, he said, to the way in which petroleum "resources," which simply look at how much oil or gas is there, do not all translate into "reserves" -- which people can actually recover using current technology and under today's economic conditions. In the same way, he argued, more research needs to be done on CCS.
"The only way you're going to do that is on a site-by-site basis," Burruss said.
The study acknowledged that much of the capacity that it cites may turn out not to be usable.
"This doesn't represent a blueprint for the next 100 years," Dooley said. But the study also argues that even if only a fraction of the 2,300 gigatons of CO2 capacity were usable, barring the "most pessimistic case," the technology could still be "a significant tool" and provide up to 3 gigatons of emissions reductions over several decades.
Not everyone, though, is bullish on the idea of China or other developing nations ramping up CCS.
"These countries don't have the capacity to monitor and regulate such a broad infrastructure," said Emily Rochon, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace. "Mistakes are going to be made, accidents are going to happen, and it's not going to work as well as people ... predicted. ... The United States doesn't even have a regulatory framework for [carbon capture and storage] at the moment."