NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 14, 2010

For some, carbon capture and sequestration will remain the Holy Grail of carbon-reduction strategies, says Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.  Before Congress throws yet more money at the procedure, lawmakers need to take a closer look at the issues that are hamstring nearly every new energy-related technology: cost and scale. 

Consider the first problem: 

  • Capturing carbon dioxide from the flue gas of a coal-fired electric generation plant is an energy-intensive process.
  • Analysts estimate that capturing the carbon dioxide cuts the output of a typical plant by as much as 28 percent. 

Given that the global energy sector is already straining to meet booming demand for electricity, it's hard to believe that the United States, or any other country that relies on coal-fired generation, will agree to reduce the output of its coal-fired plants by almost a third in order to attempt carbon capture and sequestration, says Bryce. 

Here is the second problem: 

  • The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has estimated that up to 23,000 miles of new pipeline will be needed to carry the captured carbon dioxide to the still-undesignated underground sequestration sites.
  • That doesn't sound like much when you consider that America's gas pipeline system sprawls over some 2.3 million miles, but those natural gas pipelines carry a valuable, marketable, useful commodity.
  • By contrast, carbon dioxide is a worthless waste product, so taxpayers would likely end up shouldering most of the cost.  

The third, and most vexing, problem has to do with scale: 

  • In 2009, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States totaled 5.4 billion tons.
  • Let's assume that policymakers want to use carbon capture to get rid of half of those emissions -- say, 3 billion tons per year; that works out to about 8.2 million tons of carbon dioxide per day, which would have to be collected and compressed to about 1,000 pounds per square inch (that compressed volume of carbon dioxide would be roughly equivalent to the volume of daily global oil production).
  • In other words, we would need to find an underground location (or locations) able to swallow a volume equal to the contents of 41 oil supertankers each day, 365 days a year.   

Source: Robert Bryce, "A Bad Bet on Carbon," New York Times, May 12, 2010. 

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