The 'clean coal' era has not begun

Canada's supposedly 'historic' carbon capture project is only viable because it helps extract oil from tight spots. Even more damningly, the technology is still failing - with leakages out of control.

'Carbon Capture and Storage' – it’s a marketing term that shouldn’t be confused for a technology.

Environmental groups such as the Climate Institute need to be more careful in supporting claims that there is a technological fix for coal’s pollution problem, such as their recent article suggesting a newly completely project demonstrated that carbon capture and storage could be a viable solution.      

So what is the real story here?

Spin aside, one 110 megawatt gross coal plant is having its carbon emissions captured (temporarily) in an “Enhanced Oil Recovery” (EOR) operation in the Saskatchewan province of Canada. It’s the “Enhanced Oil” bit that makes the project economical. This recent CCS spin campaign is somewhat like the story, floated some years ago, about China’s push into CCS; umm, well, all of those plants still seem to be “planned” but no ground has been broken and no money committed – another CCS failure down the memory hole.

The Climate Institute goes onto say that environmentalists shy away from the technology, seeing it as just a big fig leaf. Well, if it looks like a fig leaf and covers failed technology like a fig leaf, then it just might be a fig leaf. And this much touted fig leaf is not just a fig leaf for coal burning but also a fig leaf for the worst of the oil industry, as well.

The Saskatchewan plant is only economical because it enables the Saskatchewan government backed oil company (Cenovus), who specialise in oil sands recovery and other emissions intensive processes, to get the dirtiest oil on the planet to market.

Don’t be fooled, what our oily friends at Cenovus are doing isn’t about keeping CO2 in the ground, it’s much more about getting every last drop of the world’s most CO2-intensive sandy oily muck out of the ground, processed, sold and combusted as fast as humanly possible. As for the bulk of the “captured” CO2, much of it will migrate out of those fields during their operational life and the rest will completely leak out over the following 100 years. That’s because 100 per cent of oil and gas wells that are “cased and capped” eventually leak their remaining gases over the following 100 years, deflating like all old soccer and basketballs.

Recently, a study by Cornell University titled 'Assessment and Risk Analysis of Casing and Cement Impairment in Oil and Gas Wells in Pennsylvania, 2000-2012',and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July, shows that “in the Marcellus shale region of north-east Pennsylvania of 41,381 wells over 40 per cent of them will fail catastrophically and leak”. The study was undertaken after there had been “numerous contamination complaints and explosions nationally in areas with high concentrations of unconventional oil and gas development”, and because of the increased awareness of the role of methane.

Well casings fail for a number of reasons. The ground can shift which creates stresses in the casing, creating fractures allowing moisture to get through the concrete and rust the steel that holds the well case together (it doesn’t take long for rust to set in). When moisture gets to the steel reinforcing and casing shield it all expands, as steel is oxidised it can expand 10 times its normal volume, crumbling the concrete around it. When this occurs, well integrity fails and methane and other gasses are lost. In the case of Enhanced Oil Recovery CCS, once well integrity fails, all the “captured” CO2 is quickly released into the atmosphere, delaying the inevitable climate impact of coal burning by just a very small number of years.

What’s more, if the volumes of CO2 being sequestered were significant – i.e. done on the scale of a large coal-fired power plant or many coal generators together from a coal generation region – then the likelihood and risk of inducing earth tremors is significantly increased, which again compromises the integrity of any capping/casing involved in keeping the CO2 underground.

To give an idea of how this occurs, in a document titled 'History of Oil and Gas Well Abandonment in New York', Lou Allstadt, a former senior oil and gas company executive, was quoted as saying:

“Very little attention is paid to the end of the life of an oil or gas well. I think you will find that it is rare for the larger companies to plug and abandon their older wells. Rather, at some point, a smaller company with lower overheads and less expensive operating costs will offer to buy the old wells at a price that gives the original company a better return than continued operations. The original company uses the cash to finance new investments. The buying company operates with lower costs because they spend less on maintenance and safety items and they have fewer well qualified people to pay. The chain may end there or continue through smaller and ever lower cost operators who do no preventive maintenance at all, do the bare minimum of repairs to keep the well going and eventually walk away, maybe after plugging the hole as cheaply as possible and maybe not plugging at all. The smaller companies often operate each well or group of wells under a separate corporate entity that is always stripped of cash, so if something goes wrong there are no assets to pay off claims. Not all small operators will do this, but it happens.

He then goes on to say:

“Due to a combination of cement cracks and continued development of pressure from gases and other fluids (5), leaks have been shown to develop in half of the well casings studied in just 15 years (6). Leaks in plugged wells have also been demonstrated (7). The idea that plugged wells are indefinitely stable is obviated by these industry reports."

So in other words, they all fail.

In the case of Cenovus, they are no oil major. They are already one of these more speculative plays that acquired the operating rights from the Shell Oil Company in 1997 on the Weyburn field, which peaked its production in 1964. They have actually been injecting CO2 into the well, to enhance oil recovery, since they acquired it back in 1997, sourcing the CO2 from a cross-border gasification plant in North Dakota, US.

This CCS/CO2 enhanced oil recovery project isn’t happening in isolation. The oil industry is keen to get the last skerricks of low-cost oil out in a number of locations and is willing to pay significantly for power plant gasses (mainly CO2) to extract those last drops. A list of projects from around the world is available and it shows that in the US only the failing (and doomed to fail) Futuregen project was going to be a real end-to-end carbon capture and storage project. The rest are about big oil’s oil recovery (profits), not keeping CO2 in the ground.

So what supporters of CCS, such as the Climate Institute, are actually asking us to do is to support the use (but not long-term sequestration) of CO2 for the purpose of pressuring up very poorly performing oil wells to get low grade oil products out of the ground (in Cenovus’ case from an oil field that peaked in 1964). These are wells that either shouldn’t have been developed in the first place or have already reached their end of life with all the good oil extracted.

The real “good oil”, of course, is renewable energy. CCS, on the other hand, is a red herring to distract us from a renewable energy revolution. If it does get any serious backing, it is just diverting dollars away from the massive shift underway to renewables.  

Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a world-renowned expert in climate science, says that we need to go below our current (397 parts per million) atmospheric concentration of CO2 back down below 350ppm. The goal he proposes leaves no room for coal mining and no room for coal burning in coal plants. It's time to give away drinking the CCS Kool-aid because all it will leave you with is a nasty hangover.

Matthew Wright is executive director of Zero Emissions Australia, director technical sales at Efficiency Matrix and resident columnist at Climate Spectator.

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