Should the United States bury global warming?
Yes – and quickly, says a major new report. Coal is key to America's energy future. But burning it is one of the biggest factors in climate change. So the solution is to capture the carbon dioxide it produces and store it underground.
Here's the challenge: To begin to curb climate change, the US needs to learn in less than a decade how to capture, compress, and then pump the carbon dioxide miles underground. The quantities are massive: the liquid CO2 equivalent of 20 million barrels a day – roughly equal to the amount of oil the US uses every day.
How to bury CO2 on that scale is no small question, says a panel of top researchers convened by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Without more detailed knowledge of the technology that captures it most cheaply, and the geology that would store all that CO2 without leaking, coal power will remain a huge engine of global warming, the researchers say in their report released Wednesday.
"The question will end up being: How much underground capacity can we use in injecting fairly large amounts of CO2," says Ernest Moniz, an MIT professor and report coauthor. "Will we be able to inject CO2 from 50 big power plants underground for decades? That's what we have to answer."
The challenge extends far beyond US borders. Coal-fired power plants send aloft more than 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide gas annually worldwide – about 1.5 billion tons in the US alone. Coal provides half of US electricity needs and that demand won't be met by renewable energy anytime soon, even under optimistic scenarios, the researchers say. Nuclear power holds promise but can't pull the whole load either, they add.
That leaves coal power set to "increase under any foreseeable scenario because it is cheap and abundant," the report says. More than 150 coal power plants are on the drawing boards in the US alone. China is building the equivalent of two coal-fired power plants a week.
That makes "carbon capture and sequestration," or CCS, "the critical enabling technology" for slashing CO2 emissions so coal can meet the world's energy needs.
Among the report's recommendations:
•To make CCS cost-competitive, nations should impose a tax or some equivalent mechanism that charges companies at least $30 for every ton of CO2 that they emit. That would lead to a significant reductions in greenhouse gases by 2050.