In 2015 international oil company Shell will begin to capture more than one million metric tons of the odorless, colorless gas known as carbon dioxide. The CO2 will come from three enormous machines near Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, that produce hydrogen to turn bitumen into salable oil. Once captured, the CO2 will be pumped through a pipeline to a site where it will be buried more than two kilometers underground in a porous sandstone formation. This carbon-capture-and-storage project, dubbed Quest, will be the first in the world run by the oil production industry—and join a short list of working demonstrations of a technology that may be vital if humanity is to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) "is the quickest way to get substantial greenhouse gas reductions," argues Len Heckel, Shell Canada's commercial lead for the Quest project. Heckel suggests that Shell and its partners undertook the project to reduce the company's carbon footprint, advance the technology and take advantage of government funding.
But the Quest project is a rare example of a technology that seems stuck, much like the CO2 after it is pumped underground. The 2012 survey by industry group the Global CCS Institute found that although nine new projects were announced this year, eight previously announced ones failed, bringing the total number of CCS projects worldwide to 75. Of those 75, eight are in actual operation, storing some 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year—or slightly more than the annual emissions of Bahrain—most of it from the processing of natural gas to remove CO2 so the fuel is ready to burn.
Despite the slow start, "CCS is an existing, real technology today," argues institute CEO Brad Page, adding that it is needed to meet any global goal to restrain global warming cheaply. The International Energy Agency estimates that the world needs more than 100 operational CCS projects—storing some 270 million metric tons of CO2 annually—by the end of this decade to keep global warming from surpassing a 2-degree rise in global average temperatures, given that more than 80 percent of the world's energy continues to come from fossil fuels. Or, as Page adds, it's about economics: "At stake is a very substantial power bill for the world's energy consumers if we don't get CCS up and running by 2050."
The U.S. was once the world leader in CCS experimentation, ranging from injecting CO2 underground to scour oil out of old wells to running the world's first combined carbon-capture-and-storage unit at the Mountaineer power plant in West Virginia. But Mountaineer's experiment came to an end in 2011, thanks to an inability to get customer-sourced funding approved by local regulators, given an absence of national legislation to restrain greenhouse gas emissions. "The hardware is still untapped," says chemical engineer Gary Spitznogle, director of new technology development and policy support at American Electric Power, the utility that owns and operates the Mountaineer coal-fired power plant. "We shut it down and laid it up in case someone wanted to reuse it."
That's not likely to happen anytime soon—or as Spitznogle puts it: "There'd have to be a reason more than just a deep scientific fascination with doing it." New projects are underway in the U.S.—the Plant Barry project in Alabama is capturing CO2 and burying it in an old oil field, and a new coal-fired power plant with CCS is being built in Kemper County, Miss. But progress on CCS for coal-fired power plants in the U.S. has slowed for one major reason: natural gas.