WRI's Venezia discusses new report on carbon capture and sequestration

As lawmakers look to implement policies that will help reduce our country's greenhouse gas emissions, one of the technologies they are considering is carbon capture and sequestration. Many issues remain unresolved with this technology, however. How will carbon be transported to sequestering sites? How will residents react to having carbon injected into the ground beneath their homes? Will CCS technologies become more affordable for utilities? How should the government be incentivizing the implementation of CCS technologies at power plants? During today's OnPoint, John Venezia, an associate at the World Resources Institute discusses a series of policy briefs on CCS technology being released by WRI. He addresses the hurdles facing this technology and discusses some of the opportunities that could come out of CCS implementation.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is John Venezia, an associate with the World Resources Institute's Carbon Capture and Sequestration Project. John, thanks for coming on the show.

John Venezia: Pleasure to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: WRI is in the process of releasing a series of policy briefs on the opportunities and challenges of carbon capture and sequestration. What are the biggest technological hurdles that you see facing CCS?

John Venezia: Well, there's been a lot of work done on the technology side. We understand and have the technology to capture CO2. Transporting CO2 is a mature technology and we have been storing CO2. We've been injecting CO2 into the ground for over 30 years to recover additional oil. And then we do have now demonstration projects that have been injecting CO2 and storing it and monitoring these technologies. So, on the technological side, we have each of the components. I think a key thing will be is to integrate all of these components with a large-scale power plant. Currently no power plant is really capturing and storing their CO2. So, integrating all of these technologies with a large power plant will be key, so we will need more large demonstration projects to do that. And also cost is a big issue on the technology side. It's an expensive process, especially on the capture side. It's a very energy intensive and so we really need to bring these costs down or provide incentives for power companies and utilities to start using CCS.

Monica Trauzzi: How far away do you think we are from an implementable technology that's also economically feasible?

John Venezia: Well, that will depend on the policy. Policy design will really drive whether CCS can be economic and compete as we do move forward with carbon having a value. Right now there's no value to carbon dioxide and so power plants just emit it into the atmosphere. And as you know, we are having a lot of discussion right now on limits and a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. And it's still a little early to figure out which one is going to work or which one will be in place, but clearly having a price on carbon is important to at least give some incentives for not emitting carbon into the atmosphere.

Monica Trauzzi: There's a lot of talk about what happens to the carbon once it's sequestered. Are public health issues a big concern for you? Is it something that we should heavily consider as we try to create a policy for CCS and also move forward with the technology?

John Venezia: Definitely. And I think that's one of the concerns, is making sure that as we move forward with these practices that storage is safe and effective. There has been a lot of work done in this area and so far we've learned that the risks actually can be very low as long as these projects are done properly. We're injecting the CO2 in a liquid form deep, deep underground into geological formations that have trapped oil and have trapped natural gas for millions of years. So we understand the technology. We understand the geology. We just need more experience with these large projects.

Monica Trauzzi: What could go wrong though? What are some of the main risks?

John Venezia: Well, for example, if a project is not done properly, if the proper siting procedures aren't done, if proper monitoring technologies aren't in place and CO2 does leak into drinking water, that's an issue of contaminating underground sources of drinking water. And in worst-case scenarios we can back-up the service where it could endanger the local ecosystem or human health. So that is a concern and that's something WRI is very concerned about, is making sure that while if you do these projects correctly, the risk can be low. But we really need to do the proper siting and do the proper monitoring and make sure that the companies that are doing this are using safe procedures.

Monica Trauzzi: How big is the NIMBY issue or NUMBY, not under my backyard, as you say in the report? How big of a deal is that?

John Venezia: I think that will become more of a bigger deal as the public starts to learn more about what CCS is.

Monica Trauzzi: Yeah, because they probably don't even know what it is, even if it's being considered in their area.

John Venezia: It's very new. There was an MIT survey done last year that found that less than 5 percent of the public had actually even heard of CCS. So this is a new technology. New technologies can be scary. And so even though the risks are low, the perceived risks actually may be much higher than they actually are. So it will be very important to engage the local communities early on in this process. And as we say in one of our policy briefs, not just informing them we're going to go ahead with this project in your backyard, but really involving them in this process, collaborating with them, consulting them, making them part of an open and transparent decisionmaking process. But the NIMBY issue is definitely, I think, one of the big hurdles that people would be concerned about, especially since this is a new technology. So it will be pretty important to highlight some of the projects that have been going on for a number of years. There's actually been three very large demonstration projects that have been injecting over a million tons of CO2 every year, deep underground. And one off the coast of Norway has been operating since 1996. So this isn't an absolute brand new technology, but we have been doing this for a number of years. But as we start integrating this with power plants we're definitely going to need to start engaging the public more and at this early stage public opinion will be forming.

Monica Trauzzi: Greenwire recently reported that at a CCS meeting in California over 70 activist groups came out in opposition of a CCS project in their area. So how much of their concerns are actually warranted?

John Venezia: Well, I think it's an important part of the discussion because when these communities are looking at a project in their area, what they're looking at are the risks and the benefits. And when you look at the risks these are going to be a little bit more of the local risks. You know, if a project is not done properly what are the risks? Your drinking water and human health. And, again, we think these risks are low and can be managed, but getting this information out there is important. However, the benefits of doing CCS are really to the global community as a whole. So there's an important issue here about trade-offs between who's taking on the risks and the benefits. And I think that will be something that is more important to be discussed at a local level. But the Department of Energy, they have been doing projects around North America. I mean there was 25 smaller pilot projects that have been going on and they have been engaging these local communities. Clearly they're picking areas where people are little bit more familiar with injecting things underneath the ground, but they have been doing a good job of holding public meetings and going door to door and really involving and educating the public. And all of those projects have been going forward, so I think that's an example of good public outreach. But, again, these are much smaller pilot projects and as we really start to consider these more at a larger scale it will be important to do much more of this public outreach.

Monica Trauzzi: Obviously investment is going to play a major role in the future success of CCS. How should we be guiding utility investment? What kind of legislative framework do we need in place to sort of encourage companies to start investing in carbon capture and sequestration technology?

John Venezia: Well, as I mentioned earlier, we first need a price on carbon. It's free to emit carbon right now and there's really not much benefit of injecting CO2 into the ground. There are some early opportunities to actually get more oil out of the ground, but overall this is a cost plus activity. And so utilities and power companies will need the proper incentives. If we do have a cap-and-trade program in place, however, the price of carbon is likely to be too low, especially for these early projects. So we'll need some sort of additional incentives, whether they're subsidies or some of the recent bills are talking about a multiplier, specific allowances for CCS, and then a multiplier to get carbon prices up to the $40 or so a ton of CO2 that's needed to spur investment.

Monica Trauzzi: Another major hurdle is expanding the pipeline network that already exists in order to transfer large quantities of the sequestered carbon. You say in the report that it's unlikely we'll see reductions in costs, but we need more pipelines. So, how big of an issue is this?

John Venezia: Well, I mean on the pipeline side it's a very mature technology. We have over 3000 miles of pipelines in the U.S. today piping CO2. So we understand the technology. I think the issue will be if coal power plants are trapping and sequestering their emissions, what's the most efficient pipeline network? And that's, I think, really yet to be seen, is will it be a step-by-step, company by company putting in their pipelines together? Wouldn't it be much more efficient with a regional or a national pipeline network? And really, what's the role of the government to play with the private sector as far as making sure that the most efficient pipeline and networks are constructed?

Monica Trauzzi: Is the current pace of R&D substantial enough in order for CCS to play a significant role in a climate change solution? Or do we need to move faster?

John Venezia: I think we need to move faster, particularly with these large demonstration projects. As I mentioned, DOE has these 25 pilot projects and they do have seven upcoming projects which will be a little bit bigger. But having CCS with a large power plant will actually store about four to five million tons of carbon dioxide per year, so we need these larger demonstration projects and soon. And we also need a regulatory framework. Right now there are no accepted guidelines about how to go ahead and make sure you're doing a proper site characterization and what should the monitoring requirements be? And so that's a big gap that at WRI we're concerned about. Even if the technology is ready today I think companies will be very reticent if there's no guidelines about what are their liabilities going to be? And so one of the things we're doing at WRI is convening a stakeholder process. We have over 60 different companies, environmental NGOs, government agencies, research institutes, and what we're doing is meeting to develop and build consensus on guidelines about how projects should be done, how they can be safe, how they can be effective, but also how to facilitate cost-effective deployment and not have overly burdensome and unnecessary standards.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We will end it on that note. Thank you.

John Venezia: Thank you very much.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for coming on the show. This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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