Is geological storage of CO2 the right solution?

Opinions are divided on this promising, yet controversial technique

In 2.5 million years, the  concentration of atmospheric CO2 has never been as high as it is today. It is time to act. Research laboratories and industry sectors have developed a response based on capturing carbon dioxide and storing it in the ground. Some associations and NGOs have already warned of the potential risks and the costs of these techniques. What should we think of this promising, but, nonetheless, controversial solution?

In 2.5 million years, the  concentration of atmospheric CO2 has never been as high as it is today. It is time to act. Research laboratories and industry sectors have developed a response based on capturing carbon dioxide and storing it in the ground. Some associations and NGOs have already warned of the potential risks and the costs of these techniques. What should we think of this promising, but, nonetheless, controversial solution?

 

This article was translated from French by Timothée Froelich.

 

In April 2013, the French Club CO2 established a prize to recognize dissertation work on CO2 capture, transport, valuation and storage. This area of research aims at capturing the CO2 right at its most polluting source, and then sequestering it deep underground. It seems that this solution could be a good complement to renewable sources of energy. However, it is hardly moving forward and remains quite controversial. Its opponents criticize its high cost, and worry about the risks related to geological storage. While immediate action is needed, carbon dioxide storage wavers between both opinions.

Tackling the issue at its source

Forests and oceans are not enough to stem the increase in atmospheric carbon concentrations. For the first time in history, the CO2 concentration in the air could reach a peak of 0.04%, according to the forecasts of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This would be the highest rate since the Pliocene. CO2 emissions from transport are too diffuse to be captured. But carbon dioxide from smokestacks can be recovered. Once it is compressed and transported through pipelines, this carbon waste can be stored in various geological sites, such as non-potable groundwater, or depleted oil and gas deposits.

Industrial sectors have a significant interest in tackling CO2 production at its very roots. Many of them are investing heavily in research on the matter. Since 2009, the MinesParisTech “CO2 capture, transport, and storage” industrial chair, based in Le Havre, France, has brought together industry players—Total, GDF Suez, EDF, Air Liquide—as well as local partners and various research laboratories, like that of MinesParisTech’s. The chair is interested in both capturing and storing carbon gas. Director Denis Clodic welcomes the fact that “there are more and more theses carried out on the subject, with very interesting results.” 

 

To fight the increasing rise in atmospheric CO2, industry sectors are interested in carbon dioxide capture and storage.

Image: publicenergy Dave Wild. 

Divided opinions from NGOs

Although CO2 capture and storage is supported by the Bellona foundation, an environmental NGO, Greenpeace is strongly opposed to it : “It is an option that we need to give up on,” claims the organization. The arguments listed on its website particularly stress its inaccessibility, its high energy consumption, and its costs. This technology would draw investment away from the real solution: renewable energy. But techniques for carbon dioxide capture and storage are still at an early stage. Research could make it possible to optimize them and reduce their costs. Researchers are also investigating other alternatives, like carbon recycling or revaluation. If hydrogen is added to the CO2, methane can be produced and used as a raw material by industry. Carbon waste could also be used to enrich impoverished soils. Denis Clodic regrets, though, that, in any case, “reuse will not make up for emissions.”

Opponents of CO2 capture and storage also criticize this option because it would not incite industry to lower its emissions of carbon dioxide. “Combustion is indispensable for industry,” objects Denis Clodic. Researchers, industrialists, and environmentalists all agree on one point: the necessity of fully controling the potential risks related to geological storage, including pollution of potable groundwater and sudden release in the atmosphere. “It is impossible to guarantee safe and permanent CO2 storage,” warns Greenpeace.

“CO2 is the price to pay for the way we live,” explains Denis Clodic. Carbon dioxide capture and storage is not a miracle solution. However, it could complement other strategies against the increase in greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

 

To find out more :

Interview of M. Denis Clodic - Director of the CEP Paris - MINES ParisTech