Study: Small chance of stored CO2 leaks

Sept. 14, 2011 at 6:57 AM
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EDINBURGH, Scotland, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Fears that the underground storage of carbon dioxide from power plants is dangerous are unfounded, Scottish researchers claimed this week.

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh said in a study released Monday the risk of death from poisoning as a result of exposure to CO2 leaks from underground rocks is miniscule -- about 1-in-100 million.

That's about the same chance as winning a lottery jackpot, said Stuart Haszeldine of the university's school of geosciences, who led the study.

"Our findings show that storing CO2 underground is safe and should allay any concerns that the technology poses a significant threat to health," he said.

Energy industry backers of carbon capture and sequestration projects want to more broadly deploy the technology, in which the CO2 gas is separated from the waste stream of burning fossil fuels at the bottom of the smokestack.

It is liquefied and piped to a deep underground storage site, usually composed of porous basalt rock. There the gas eventually dissolves in underground water.

Industry backers see CCS systems as way to extend the lives of fossil fuel-burning plants while moving to develop greener alternative energy forms, such as hydro, wind and tidal.

But the going has been slow for CCS projects -- government support for the technology has been lacking in comparison for subsidies given to wind power efforts.

Environmentalists claim the expensive CCS retro-fittings would delay the inevitable phase outs of coal-fired power plants and that underground storage of concentrated CO2 gas can produce lethal leaks.

Indeed, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute says one-fifth of the world's 70 planned carbon capture projects were delayed or canceled due to the predicted problems, the Abu Dhabi daily The National reported.

But the University of Edinburgh reported indicated otherwise. It said researchers studied historical data on deaths from CO2 poisoning in Italy and Sicily, where the gas seeps naturally from the ground because of volcanic activity.

They found that the number of recorded deaths was very low, adding that well-engineered CO2 storage could be even safer with proper monitoring.

"These Italian CO2 seeps are natural, are often neither sign-posted nor fenced off, and yet there have been remarkably few accidents," said researcher Jennifer Roberts.

Britain's Carbon Capture and Storage Association says it is pushing for 20-30 gigawatts per year of energy-generating capacity to be fitted with CCS technology by 2030, which it claims will create a $16 billion annual market and employ 50,000 people.

"CCS is a vital low-carbon technology for the U.K. and is recognized by the government as one of the three key technologies (alongside nuclear and renewables) to reach a near-decarbonization of the electricity sector by 2030," CCSA Chief Executive Jeff Chapman said in a statement.

It noted the British government has committed to four CCS plants, to be determined through an industry competition. The first plant is to be financed by general tax dollars.

There are seven CCS proposals in the works, the industry group said.

European backers of CO2 sequestration will be watching next month's experiment in Iceland where a research group led by Reykjavik Energy will begin carbon injection at its Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, the London trade journal Industrial Fuels and Power reported.

That project seeks to lessen the chances of leaks by artificially creating seams of limestone. Under the experimental process, the CO2 is pumped underground and turned into "seltzer water" which reacts with basalt rock, transforming the dissolved CO2 into harmless limestone.

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