Building CO2 pipelines may not be so scary after all

Do not be afraid of a monster network of pipelines ferrying carbon dioxide from power plants to underground permanent storage sites.

That message -- delivered yesterday by a climate expert at the International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies in Washington, D.C. -- counters the oft-heard criticism that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which requires transporting greenhouse gases from electricity generators, is a fantastical endeavor requiring more tubing than is used by the entire global oil network.

Instead, the United States only needs to build between 11,000 and 23,000 additional miles of CO2 pipeline to keep carbon dioxide levels stable in the atmosphere, a percentage of growth much smaller than what occurred between 1950 and 2000 in building a labyrinth for carrying natural gas, according to a new analysis.

"I beg of you, don't make [an] analogy between oil and gas production and CO2 transportation. It only serves to scare policymakers," said James Dooley, senior staff engineer at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, at the conference. Dooley was one of three authors of the research.

The trio assessed the CO2 conveyance system required to hold carbon dioxide levels at between 450 and 550 parts per million, amounts parallel to what would result from proposed legislation by the U.S. Congress. Even to achieve the more stringent 450 ppm target, the group found that existing CO2 pipelines, now 3,900 miles in length, would only have to grow about sixfold.


In comparison, more than 270,000 miles of large natural gas pipelines were built between 1950 and 2000, with little impact on skyrocketing U.S. economic growth at the time, the authors noted.

Not a 'significant' economic barrier

Ninety-five percent of the largest CO2 emitters are within 50 miles of a potential underground storage spot for the gas, avoiding a need for a transcontinental passageway, Dooley emphasized. He added that demand for additional CO2 pipeline capacity would unfold relatively slowly, with only about 6,000 miles of new infrastructure needed before 2030 under the 450 ppm scenario.

"Given that the [natural gas structure] was built in a relatively short period during a time that the U.S. economy was significantly smaller, the cost burden imposed by the need to build a CO2 pipeline infrastructure should not pose a significant barrier for the commercial deployment of ccs systems in the United States," the authors wrote.

Other researchers have reached different conclusions, at least about the worldwide feasibility of putting the technology to use. Earlier this year, University of Manitoba professor Vaclav Smil argued that handling less than a quarter of emitted CO2 would require a transport system larger than the existing one for the world's entire crude oil industry.

But at the conference, much of the concern about deployment of CCS revolved around other challenges rather than any technical issues with growth in the CO2 transport system. Dooley said one potential obstacle was the siting of pipelines in areas where they are unwanted, either for aesthetics or for space reasons.

Time in itself is a pressing issue, noted David White of oil field services company Schlumberger, considering that it can take two to five years simply to identify storage sites for carbon dioxide. The only way to speed things up, several attendees said, was for politicians to act quickly in changing the financial incentives to make CCS pleasing to investors.

"None of this is going to happen unless there's a price on carbon," said White.

Lauren Morello contributed to this report.

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