Using Technology To Keep Carbon Emissions In Check : All Tech Considered Renewable energy is only one of the steps toward achieving the goals set by the Paris climate deal. We take a trip around North America to explore other ways of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.
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Using Technology To Keep Carbon Emissions In Check

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Using Technology To Keep Carbon Emissions In Check

Using Technology To Keep Carbon Emissions In Check

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Paris agreement to curb climate change calls for a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels and their greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to renewable energy could help. But taken alone, that won't keep temperatures from rising to dangerous levels, so scientists and researchers all over the world are working on other technological solutions, and that's our topic today for All Tech Considered.

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CORNISH: We're talking about ways to trap carbon down here on Earth and keep it out of the atmosphere. And we're going to take a quick trip around North America to hear some of the ways it's being done, starting with NPR's Jeff Brady in Alberta, Canada.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: We're at an industrial site north of Edmonton for a grand opening.

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BRADY: Usually there's a ribbon-cutting, but here dignitaries turn a big, yellow, metal wheel to mark the opening of the Quest Carbon Capture and Storage Project. This is part of Royal Dutch Shell's oil sands business. Turning gooey oil sands into crude emits a lot of carbon dioxide. But here, Shell captures some of that greenhouse gas before it escapes into the air.

TIM WIWCHAR: With heat, we flash off the CO2. It goes over into the compressor building just behind me.

BRADY: Project manager Tim Wiwchar says the CO2 is compressed into a liquid.

WIWCHAR: And it's piped 65 kilometers away, down our 12-inch pipeline, to our three injection wells.

BRADY: Then it's permanently stored in those wells, 1.4 miles underground. The technology in the Quest project has been around for a while, but it's still not cheap. Just this one plant cost almost a $1 billion to build and operate over the next decade. And for all that money, it captures a only about a third of the CO2. Shell CEO Ben van Beurden says at this point, carbon capture and storage is not profitable.

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BEN VAN BEURDEN: It creates maybe societal value, but it doesn't create commercial value. So we will need some sort of support mechanism to incentivize companies like ourselves to do that.

BRADY: Van Beurden says if there were a cost placed on carbon emissions, that could give oil companies the incentive they need to build more plants like Quest. Turns out just such a program is in the works, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced it in November.

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RACHEL NOTLEY: Alberta will be phasing in a $30-per-ton, economy-wide carbon price.

(APPLAUSE)

BRADY: Shell supports this and says the price should be even higher. So why would an oil company want the government to increase its cost? The key is increasing costs the same for all oil companies. That would level the playing field so Shell isn't the only one building plants like this. Van Beurden says he hopes other companies will follow. He's even offering to share what Shell learned here but so far, no takers. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: I'm Lauren Sommer with KQED in California, where there's been a lot of excitement about capturing carbon. The state has a firm goal to cut carbon emissions. And six years ago, Keith Pronske was showing me a project he hoped would do just that. It was a power plant run by his company, Clean Energy Systems, that burns natural gas to make electricity, which creates carbon pollution. But his idea was to capture the carbon and put it underground to permanently trap it in rock layers underneath this dusty lot in the Central Valley.

KEITH PRONSKE: This is about changing the way that power is produced. If you bring the carbon up, use it and put it back is the basic idea.

SOMMER: It was meant to be a model project, a shining example of zero-emission energy. But that was six years ago.

PRONSKE: Well, it's been, I'd say, a wild ride, and we've had a few bumps.

SOMMER: When I met with Pronske last month, his plan had stalled. He tried to find a utility that would buy electricity from his plants, but the power is more expensive because he also has to cover the cost of burying the carbon. Utilities just weren't interested. Other carbon capture projects aren't faring any better. The federal government offered more than $3 billion in grants, but these projects are big and complicated, and they had to convince doubters who worry about environmental impacts. Many projects have been canceled altogether.

PRONSKE: The real issue is getting across this Valley of Death of how do we get these first plants built?

SOMMER: So some projects are looking to improve their economics. They make money off the carbon by using it.

STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: I'm Stephanie Joyce in Wyoming. Carbon capture and sequestration may be the gold standard for carbon management. But there's an alternative, if counterintuitive, way to sequester carbon; enhanced oil recovery, which is exactly what it sounds like. Oil is hard to get out of the ground, but carbon dioxide can help get that out.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Once delivered to the field, the CO2 is injected through a well and down into the reservoir.

JOYCE: That's from a promotional video for Denbury Resources, one of the country's biggest enhanced oil recovery companies. The CO2 bonds with the oil molecules trapped in the rock and acts like a detergent, washing the oil out. The oil comes up to the surface, but some of the CO2 ends up trapped, sequestered underground.

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KIPP CODDINGTON: I think we are going to see more and more of these CO2 enhanced oil recovery projects go forward because there, there is an economic case to be made for that.

JOYCE: That's Kipp Coddington, head of the University of Wyoming's Carbon Management Institute. There's an economic case because that oil can be sold for money, but there's an accounting wrinkle. Burning the oil produced through enhanced oil recovery can actually emit more carbon than is sequestered. Even so, Coddington says it's better than a regular old barrel of oil.

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CODDINGTON: If you can produce a lower-carbon-footprint oil and displace a higher-carbon-footprint oil, why wouldn't you do that? I mean, it's still progress.

JOYCE: But the question is not whether it's progress, but whether it's enough progress to meet the country's CO2 reduction goals.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: I'm Leigh Paterson from Inside Energy, also in Wyoming, a state that relies heavily on jobs and revenue from coal mining. So figuring out what to do with captured carbon is important here, whether it's used for enhanced oil recovery or something else.

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MATT MEAD: I can't wait to see what great minds come up with to reimagine CO2.

PATERSON: That's Wyoming governor Matt Mead announcing the location of a carbon testing lab funded mostly by the state and a Denver-based utility. The goal? To turn harmful CO2 emissions into building blocks for useful products. Captured CO2 is already sold to make fertilizer, dry ice and plastics. It can even be used to carbonate your soda. It all sounds great, says Simon Bennett, an analyst for the International Energy Agency.

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SIMON BENNETT: Technology gets provided, consumerism will do the rest. And that's a very, very attractive thing.

PATERSON: But Bennett points out that the demand for this kind of carbon is still really small. According to the IEA, the industrial market for captured CO2 is around 200 million tons per year. In comparison, global CO2 emissions from energy use in 2013 were around 175 times that. And to better those odds, researchers at the University of Wyoming are working on improving technologies that remove the carbon from coal to turn it into things like methanol, an ingredient in paints and plastics. For Mark Northam, the director of the School of Energy Resources, this would change the state's future.

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MARK NORTHAM: Twenty years from now, I would say fewer mines, more industry, the railcars full of products rather than coal cars hauling lumps of coal to power plants.

PATERSON: But finding the time, money and the political will to advance carbon capture technology are all serious barriers to preparing it for prime time. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.

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