Olivine beach at South Point, Hawaii - as the green-hued rock and sand is weathered by the waves, it sequesters carbon dioxide. Photo: Lauren Bacon via Flickr.com.
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No to Carbon Capture and Storage!
8th January 2014
Dutch MPs may approve an expenditure of €150 million for a CCS plant to separate CO2 and store it under the North Sea. Professor Olaf Schuiling begs them to refuse - and pursue greener alternatives!
I urge you to refuse the Minister's request and stop this dangerous, expensive and unsustainable project.
Honored members of Parliament,
The Minister of Economic Affairs is asking you to make an additional sum of €150 million available for the construction of a Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) system in the North Sea.
This would mean separating out carbon dioxide (CO2) from power station flue gases, pumping the CO2 to the North Sea, and injecting it into geological reservoirs below the seabed.
I urge you to refuse the Minister's request and stop this dangerous, expensive and unsustainable project. There is no better time to stop this project than right now - before any expenditures are made.
It is possible to capture a larger volume of CO2 in a safer and more sustainable way, at lower cost, by which the climate is better served.
Even if we cut emissions, we still have a CO2 problem
There is no disagreement that we must capture and store CO2, because a rising level of CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to climate change - indeed the IPCC reports that climate change caused by CO2 is already upon us.
Some environmentalists fear that the availability of an effective way to remove CO2 may reduce the pressure to switch to green energy. Some such effect is possible, however the main drivers towards green energy are now economic.
Declining costs have made renewable energy a competitive choice in many locations, as well as one which protects against future increases in fossil energy prices.
However even with a rapid and global transition to renewable energy, we still have a huge surplus CO2 in the atmosphere.
Noting the widely recognised need to bring CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere below 350ppm, and that the current concentration has already for a period exceeded 400ppm and continues to rise each year, we still need to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it safely.
Our CO2 emissions are also leading to ocean acidification, as the gas dissolves in ocean waters to form carbonic acid. This raised ocean acidity will create severe problems for many marine species that form shells from calcium carbonate, and threaten specific food chains on which we depend for fish, as well as wider oceanic biodiversity.
However it makes no difference where in the world this CO2 is captured, nor what its origin is, because the atmosphere is a well-mixed reservoir on a time-scale of months.
There is therefore no particular reason to capture the CO2 from the chimneys of coal-fired power stations. We should rather must capture as much CO2 as we can, in a safe and sustainable way, at the lowest possible cost.
CCS satisfies none of these three criteria
First, CCS is not safe, owing to the risk of large scale CO2 release from reservoirs - which would both negate the intended climate benefit - and the considerable toxicity of CO2 at high concentrations.
A recent article in Nature reveals that a CCS site in the North Sea previously considered secure is in fact unsafe and that releases of CO2 are to be expected: "The seabed is fractured and scarred more than researchers had appreciated".
Second, CCS is unsustainable, owing to the danger of release already mentioned, and due to the very high additional fuel burn needed to power the energy-intensive CCS process.
This 'parasitic energy load' is estimated to increase the typical coal burn by at least 30%. Or to put it another way, 25% of a CCS power station's output would be used to drive the CCS.
Third, CCS is very expensive, both due to the additional fuel burn, and the cost of the large scale chemical engineering, pumping, injection and ongoing long term monitoring of the storage sites.
There are alternatives!
Some alternatives that have been studied are among others the storage of biochar in soils, the 'fertilization' of the oceans and above all the carbonation of the ubiquitous mineral olivine by enhanced weathering of rock.
In the weathering process CO2 is absorbed from the atmosphere and converted into innocuous bicarbonate, contributing to the alkalinity of the oceans and releasing important mineral nutrients including magnesium and iron.
Rock weathering is the natural process that, since the beginning of Earth history 4.6 billion years ago, has kept a balance between the input of new CO2 (mainly from volcanoes) and its output (by storing it in solid limestones and dolomites).
If that system had not worked, there would be no life on Earth. Our planet, just like our sister planet Venus, would then have an atmosphere of almost pure CO2, and a surface temperature of 500 degrees Celsius.
Presently humanity emits about 50 times more CO2 than the Earth normally does through natural process, creating a serious imbalance. By accelerating the rate of rock weathering the balance between CO2 input and output can be restored.
There are a number of ways in which this can be done - some of thema re set out in my article "Six commercially viable ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and/or reduce CO2 emissions". Note in particular the idea "Olivine in high-energy marine environments" which invites the participation of the Netherlands.
The Dutch company Greensand.nl is also a global leader in using olivine to sequester atmospheric CO2 using a variety of techniques.
China, India, Brazil ...
Other countries should also be involved in this effort, notably China and India, with their growing need for cheap and abundant energy to support economic growth. Both countries have huge coal reserves, so their CO2 emissions are likely to increase for some time before increases in renewable energy will bring their emissions down.
Fortunately, both countries have enormous reserves of olivine, that captures CO2 during weathering. The world should therefore ask China and India (and preferably Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa as well) to compensate for their CO2 emissions by enhanced weathering of olivine.
South Africa is especially well placed to participate as it has huge stocks of olivine-rich kimberlite - a waste product of diamond mining - that it could readily put to use.
The long series of failed world climate conferences has shown that pushing for emission reduction does not work - at least not fast enough to stabilise the global climate. Nature is our best ally. Let us not exchange it for an unnatural, insecure, unsustainable and very expensive technology.
There is no support for CCS among the Dutch population. And the scientific community is becoming increasingly sceptical of the merits of this large scale chemical engineering project. As evident from the following quotation of Michael Priestnall in the Carbon Capture Journal:
"So what would we prefer, a CCS infrastructure that uses a quarter of a power station's electricity to sequester its CO2 emissions under the North Sea or one that generates additional electricity and useful material products?"
Stopping the CCS option
As you know several countries (among which recently Norway) have stopped the CCS option. For the Netherlands it is also true "better to turn around half way than to go on in the wrong direction".
I therefore wish you the wisdom to force the government to stop its plans for CCS, and instead make the funds available to capture more CO2 in a better and more natural way - one which will also create a large saving for the Treasury.
Olaf Schuiling (known as R. D. Schuiling in the scientific literature) is Emeritus Professor of Geochemistry at the University of Utrecht and author of numerous scientific papers about olivine and its potential to safely and inexpensively sequester CO2.
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