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Carbon Capture on Biofuels: A Path to Net Negative Emissions

On April 7, Archer Daniels Midland, the food processing and biofuels company, began permanently storing carbon dioxide 7000 feet underground, adjacent to its Decatur, Illinois corn ethanol plant.  At full capacity, the Illinois Industrial carbon capture and storage facility will prevent one million metric tonnes per year of carbon dioxide (CO2) from entering the atmosphere.  That is equivalent to taking more than 200,000 cars off the road, or eliminating emissions from more than 100,000 typical American homes.

The Illinois Industrial facility represents the most recent example of the hidden success story of carbon capture and storage (often referred to as CCS).  While the current focus of the media and policymakers is on CCS applied to coal-fired power plants, CCS on industrial facilities has been successfully practiced for more than 40 years.  Illinois Industrial is the 17th operating large-scale CCS facility around the world – each capturing and storing more than 400,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. Cumulatively these facilities capture and permanently store about 35 million tonnes per year of CO2.  Most of the operating facilities capture CO2 from industrial processes, such as natural gas processing, hydrogen production, fertilizer production, synthetic natural gas production, and most recently steel and ethanol production. Twelve of the 17 operating facilities are located in the US and Canada, and at present there are just two on coal-fired power plants.

CCS technology involves separating and capturing CO2, compressing it for transportation and then injecting it deep into an underground formation at a carefully selected and safe site, where it is permanently stored.  Both the physics and the economics favor CCS on industrial facilities over power plants. In addition, CCS is the only way to achieve deep decarbonisation in the production of cement, steel, fertilizer, and ethanol, and in refining and natural gas processing.

CCS on biofuels plants such as the ADM facility is particularly intriguing, as it paves the way for net negative emissions, i.e. removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere – in this case by growing corn that is then converted into a useful product (ethanol) – and then permanently storing CO2 generated in the conversion process.  Many scientists think that CO2 removal from the atmosphere in one form or another will be essential to meet climate change goals.

The International Energy Agency, in its 2016 Energy Technology Perspectives report, has concluded that CCS should contribute 12% of cumulative CO2 emission reductions required through 2050 in order to limit warming to 2-degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees fahrenheit).  Of that, 45% of the opportunity for carbon reductions associated with CCS lies in the industrial sector. In North America, where we aren’t building very many new coal-fired power plants, the opportunity is even higher.

The Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, which is about to commence construction in Alberta, Canada, is a model example of CCS applied to the industrial sector. It envisions transporting CO2 captured from multiple industrial sources to depleted oil fields, to be sold for use in enhanced oil recovery. Similar initiatives are under development in Europe and the US.

In addition to the role that CCS will play in addressing climate change, it is also essential to enable countries and companies to utilize their domestic resources and sell them into a global market that is increasingly demanding low-carbon energy.

In November 2016 the Global CCS Institute published its latest annual report on the status of CCS. One of the conclusions of that report is that carbon capture is at a crossroads: It is essential, but not inevitable. Essential in order to achieve the climate change goals agreed to by leaders of 194 countries in Paris in 2015.  But not inevitable due to a lack of adequate government policy support in many countries, divided public sentiment, and challenging project economics.

Accelerating the deployment of CCS will require a continuing commitment and investment from both governments and business. We believe that it is important that governments level the playing field for all carbon reduction mechanisms: providing similar incentives, loan programs and regulatory frameworks to what is afforded to renewables. And we believe that a critical role of governments is to foster research and development to accelerate technology advances, and drive down costs. Businesses, for their part, must also continue to invest, to innovate, and to take risks, to move us to a low-carbon economy that will reduce business and climate risks and increase prosperity for all of us over the long term.

Co-authored by Jeff Erikson and Ron Munson

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