Carbon Sequestration: 

Coal's Future


Pat Esposito 

    The U.S. Department of Energy has undertaken an ambitious effort to study the possibilities of capturing and storing carbon dioxide gases, a process known as carbon sequestration, in different regions of the country. The effort would seek to develop a viable option for reducing emissions of the gases, a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels. These emissions have been targeted as a contributor to global climate change.
    The southeast was one of the regions chosen by the federal government for the study. 
    "If carbon sequestration is proven a viable option to reduce carbon emissions, the payoff could be huge," said Ken Nemeth, executive director of the Southern States Energy Board (SSEB). 'The process would help companies and the government to meet environmental goals, but would ensure that fuel costs remain low through the continued use of coal."
    The SSEB is managing entity for the southeast research effort: the Southeast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, dubbed "SECARB."
    The eleven-state SECARB region includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Researchers for this effort include the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Mississippi State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Augusta Systems, among others.
    Pat Esposito, chief executive officer of Augusta Systems explained that carbon sequestration includes efforts to capture emissions from power plants and inject the gas underground.
    "The process is familiar to those in the oil and gas industries, where carbon dioxide injection has been used to improve the efficiency of oil and gas wells," Esposito said. "In this case, instead of using the carbon dioxide as a means of forcing oil and gas to the surface to increase production, the gas would be injected with the goal of long-term storage in geologic formations."
    Other types of carbon sequestration include terrestrial sequestration, where trees, which naturally absorb carbon dioxide, are used as so-called "carbon sinks." 
    The catalyst for seeking technology solutions, such as carbon sequestration, to greenhouse gas emissions issues has been the growing movement to limit these emissions globally, whether through regulatory or voluntary means. Russia, for instance, recently announced its support for the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that would limit greenhouse gas emissions. While the U.S. has rejected the protocol, there are various efforts underway, from voluntary corporate actions to mandatory efforts at state and local levels to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration has called for voluntary 18 percent emission reductions by 2012. 
    The question then, is how to accomplish these reductions.

Kenneth Nemeth

    "Limiting emissions will be challenging because increased energy consumption is a key to economic growth," Nemeth said. "China and India alone are expected to account for two-thirds of the global increase in coal usage during the next 30 years."
    Carbon sequestration is attractive because it's one of the only options that offer the possibility of deep cuts in emissions, while still allowing for continued use of fossil fuels.
    "It's been estimated that billions of tons of carbon dioxide could be stored in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, in unmineable coal seems, and in other underground formations in the U.S. alone," Esposito said. "That would be enough room to store centuries' worth of emissions, at current levels."
    These possibilities have peaked the interest of federal officials. The Bush administration has promoted carbon sequestration as a possible useful tool in addressing these emissions issues. And industry has also signaled its willingness to explore the possibilities of carbon sequestration.
    Companies such as Duke Power, North American Coal Corp., Progress Energy, SCANA Energy, Southern Company, and Tampa Electric Co. have signed on as participants in the SECARB effort.
"We'll never know if carbon sequestration can be an effective solution unless we move forward with these research and development efforts," Nemeth explained. "But these efforts can't occur in a vacuum. We're working with energy companies and with the general public to make sure this is an acceptable and lasting solution," Nemeth said. 
    "We're hopeful that our efforts here in the southeast can become the basis for a solution to these emissions issues," Esposito said.  "Only time will tell, but there is the possibility, with this effort, for us to find a balance between our energy consumption needs and our environmental goals in a manner that is beneficial to all sides." cl


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