The Heat Is Online

MIT Urges US To Take Lead in Sequestration Technology

Report: Burying greenhouses gases will be key

To halt catastrophic climate change, the US has less than a decade learn how to capture and store carbon dioxide.

The Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 2007


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.


"Large-scale CCS demonstration projects should begin right away. At least three are needed in the US  and 10 worldwide  to test various geologic formations.


"Nations should close any loopholes that would allow utilities to build new coal plants that don't capture CO2, yet reap financial rewards.

"We have confidence that large-scale CO2 injection projects can be operated safely," the report says. At a minimum, such technology could halve America's carbon-dioxide emissions from coal by 2050.


Doing so would almost certainly require an investment of billions of dollars to build pipelines that ship compressed CO2 to geological formations around the country.


The research needed to create this infrastructure should go forward now, the scientists urge, even if the US hasn't settled on a specific climate-change policy.


In Congress, at least five pieces of global-warming legislation are pending. But neither Capitol Hill or the White House is acting quickly enough, the report says.


Last fall, the US Department of Energy announced $450 million in spending over 10 years on tests of underground capacity at seven locations. The department is also pursuing a $1 billion "FutureGen" coal plant that captures emissions and stores them underground. It's slated to be finished by 2012.


These issues "should be addressed with far more urgency than is evidenced today," the panel says.


Department of Energy officials respond that research is moving quickly and has identified enough suitable underground geology to store 200 years' worth of energy emissions.


"This administration is making significant investments in research and development of clean-coal technologies," says Megan Barnett, a DOE spokeswomen in a statement. She says the federal government is focused on "testing and further demonstrating carbon sequestration technology for broader commercial use."


Climate scientists unconnected to the study who have reviewed it say its findings are on target.


"The study is correct that we need to substantially ramp up the investment in order to make carbon capture and sequestration work," says John Holdren, a Harvard University professor and leading researcher on climate change. "If we don't, we're cooked."



MIT Press office, March 14, 2007

Washington, DC  Leading academics from an interdisciplinary Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) panel issued a report today that examines how the world can continue to use coal, an abundant and inexpensive fuel, in a way that mitigates, instead of worsens, the global warming crisis. The study, "The Future of Coal  Options for a Carbon Constrained World," advocates the U.S. assume global leadership on this issue through adoption of significant policy actions.

Led by co-chairs Professor John Deutch, Institute Professor, Department of Chemistry, and Ernest J. Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, the report states that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is the critical enabling technology to help reduce CO2 emissions significantly while also allowing coal to meet the world's pressing energy needs.

According to Dr. Deutch, "As the world's leading energy user and greenhouse gas emitter, the U.S. must take the lead in showing the world CCS can work. Demonstration of technical, economic, and institutional features of CCS at commercial scale coal combustion and conversion plants will give policymakers and the public confidence that a practical carbon mitigation control option exists, will reduce cost of CCS should carbon emission controls be adopted, and will maintain the low-cost coal option in an environmentally acceptable manner."

Dr. Moniz added, "There are many opportunities for enhancing the performance of coal plants in a carbon-constrained world  higher efficiency generation, perhaps through new materials; novel approaches to gasification, CO2 capture, and oxygen separation; and advanced system concepts, perhaps guided by a new generation of simulation tools. An aggressive R&D effort in the near term will yield significant dividends down the road, and should be undertaken immediately to help meet this urgent scientific challenge."

Key findings in this study:

  • Coal is a low-cost, per BTU, mainstay of both the developed and developing world, and its use is projected to increase. Because of coal's high carbon content, increasing use will exacerbate the problem of climate change unless coal plants are deployed with very high efficiency and large scale CCS is implemented.
  • CCS is the critical enabling technology because it allows significant reduction in CO2 emissions while allowing coal to meet future energy needs.
  • A significant charge on carbon emissions is needed in the relatively near term to increase the economic attractiveness of new technologies that avoid carbon emissions and specifically to lead to large-scale CCS in the coming decades. We need large-scale demonstration projects of the technical, economic and environmental performance of an integrated CCS system. We should proceed with carbon sequestration projects as soon as possible. Several integrated large-scale demonstrations with appropriate measurement, monitoring and verification are needed in the United States over the next decade with government support. This is important for establishing public confidence for the very large-scale sequestration program anticipated in the future. The regulatory regime for large-scale commercial sequestration should be developed with a greater sense of urgency, with the Executive Office of the President leading an interagency process.
  • The U.S. government should provide assistance only to coal projects with CO2 capture in order to demonstrate technical, economic and environmental performance.
  • Today, IGCC appears to be the economic choice for new coal plants with CCS. However, this could change with further RD&D, so it is not appropriate to pick a single technology winner at this time, especially in light of the variability in coal type, access to sequestration sites, and other factors. The government should provide assistance to several "first of a kind" coal utilization demonstration plants, but only with carbon capture.
  • Congress should remove any expectation that construction of new coal plants without CO2 capture will be "grandfathered" and granted emission allowances in the event of future regulation. This is a perverse incentive to build coal plants without CO2 capture today.
  • Emissions will be stabilized only through global adherence to CO2 emission constraints. China and India are unlikely to adopt carbon constraints unless the U.S. does so and leads the way in the development of CCS technology.
  • Key changes must be made to the current Department of Energy RD&D program to successfully promote CCS technologies. The program must provide for demonstration of CCS at scale; a wider range of technologies should be explored; and modeling and simulation of the comparative performance of integrated technology systems should be greatly enhanced.

The report is available online at

About The MIT study: A group of MIT faculty has undertaken a series of interdisciplinary studies about how the U.S. and the world would meet future energy demand without increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. The first study, "The Future of Nuclear Power," appeared in 2003.

Generous financial support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Energy Foundation, the Better World Fund, Norwegian Research Council, and the MIT Office of the Provost is gratefully acknowledged. Shell provided additional support for part of MIT's studies in China.