Should developed countries be able to meet their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by investing in carbon capture projects in developing nations? That’s one of the many questions negotiators in Copenhagen have considered this week at the ongoing international climate talks, weighing the case for adding carbon capture to the list of projects that qualify under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism. While negotiations continue through the end of this week, a UN committee has reportedly decided — for the time being — against adding the technology, which involves separating carbon from smokestacks at power plants and other industrial facilities, and then pumping the gas underground for long-term storage.
This week’s decision represents a “huge setback” for the nascent carbon capture industry, and “places greater burden” on other types of projects to reduce emissions, such as renewable energy generation and energy efficiency, says Alex Klein, research director for Emerging Energy Research’s clean power generation group. Across the spectrum of companies working on technology for carbon capture — from venture-backed startups hoping to recycle carbon into usable products, to fossil fuel behemoths hoping to use the captured gas to boost their oil recovery — this week’s rejection by the UN committee may deliver the strongest sting to equipment suppliers and large international oil companies. “They were the best leveraged,” said Klein, to take advantage of demand for carbon capture in developing countries, where the companies have oil and gas fields with potential for storing carbon, as well as the infrastructure and engineering expertise for these types of projects.
Not that the move to delay adding carbon capture to the CDM list comes as a surprise. “Nobody was really highly confident that this was going to get passed,” said Klein, noting that this week’s decision — which leaves carbon capture off the list for at least another year — shows “recognition of the opposition” to this experimental technology. Brazil, in particular, has raised concerns about “the long-term liability for the storage site, including liability for any seepage,” as the UK Telegraph reports.
A raft of startups are working on solutions to that liability question by doing away with long-term storage altogether. Rather than shoving carbon dioxide underground, companies like Ternion Bio and Seambiotic aim to capture carbon emissions from industrial flues and “feed” them to algae or other bio-based carbon recyclers for use in new products. Another proposed solution comes from Codexis and its new partner CO2 Solution: The pair are working with a bioreactor that absorbs CO2 from industrial emissions and uses an enzyme to turn it into a benign bicarbonate ion. And Porifera, a spinoff from the Lawrence Livermore National Lab that just snagged a grant from the federal high-risk green energy fund, is working on carbon nanotube membrane technology for carbon capture applications.
But as Emerging Energy Research noted in a report earlier this year, it’s the six global supermajors — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Shell and Total — that are at the front of the line to benefit from the hefty carbon capture investments being made by countries that rely heavily on energy from coal.
Carbon capture, Klein predicts, will “remain on the agenda on an ongoing basis.” And if carbon capture makes it onto the CDM list down the road, oil companies, “will be looking at this in a more urgent way.” In the meantime, this week’s decision ups the stakes for demonstration projects, such as the three projects awarded nearly $1 billion from the Department of Energy earlier this month. Carbon capture and sequestration has not been proven in commercial-scale deployments, and Klein expects that if the technology can be “demonstrated successfully in more mature markets,” the resulting data on how to operate the projects effectively and quantify emissions reductions will help pave the way to broader acceptance internationally.