Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Another Major Blow for Carbon Capture, This Time It Involves the "C" Word

by April Streeter, Portland, Oregon on 05.10.10
Science & Technology (alternative energy)

The Norwegians have been big supporters of carbon capture and storage, and the government helped get the public to go along with building of a gas-fired plant near an existing oil refinery in Mongstad partly by promising the new facility would have carbon capture. Norwegians generally consider themselves to be environmentally friendly (over 90% of their electricity is produced from renewables, and they've pledged to be carbon neutral in 2030), so it is a significant blow that the government has decided to "postpone" deciding on carbon capture plans at Mongstad until 2014, which means the CCS itself may be as far off as 2018. Why the delay? The government says technology concerns, but there's also other reports of cancerous discharges from large-scale CCS.

The Mongstad CCS project was considered to be one of the first commercial scale carbon capture sites. Now the decision of whether to put any CCS at Monstad is being pushed to beyond 2013 when the current Norwegian Parliament is renewed. State-owned Statoil promised that an investment decision on Mongstad would be made in 2012. That means Mongstad will continue to emit 2.2 million tonnes of CO2 per year until CCS is implemented, if it ever is.
That begins to make some environmental activists in Norway see just another excuse in the continuing scandal of Mongstad. The current Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, had promised that CCS at Monstad would be a "moonlanding" for Norway. The postponement also puts pressure on the Environment Minister Eric Sollenberg to revoke Mongstad's emissions permit.
And what about the scary "C" word? Well, the mainstream press has focussed on the political scandal surrounding the "delay" of CCS at Mongstad. In the Swedish press, however, they are attributing the delay in part to a new scientific report on emissions from CCS technology. The government has always said that NOx and CO2 would be reduced from the CCS facility at Mongstad, while ammonia, amines and "reaction products of the amines" would be an air byproduct of the process, and amines, ammonia, sulfuric acid and sulfates would be discharged to water.
The environmental and health effects of amines are not very well known, but a trio of Norwegian institutes along with the University of Oslo released a report early this month according to Sweden's Processnet, in which scientists voiced their concern about nitrosamines and their possible spread into the environment.
The report is based only on theoretical modeling - further tests to susbtantiate the scientists theories are planned. Bellona, the alternative energy and environmental group in Norway that supports CCS says the health risks should be assessed soon in order to not cause any futher delays with carbon capture technology.

Warmer Climate Gives Cheer to Makers of British Bubbly

Thanks to Milder Summers, England Takes Some Air Out of France's Famous Tipple
DITCHLING, England—The English invented sparkling wine in the 17th century, but failed to profit from it because their cold, dank summers yielded crummy grapes. Three decades later, a French monk named Dom Pérignon adapted the idea and devised a winning tipple, Champagne.
The Brits are starting to claw back some ground. In January, a little-known bubbly from the U.K's Nyetimber Estate was crowned "world's best sparkling wine" at a prestigious taste-off in Italy, defeating a dozen Champagnes, including Roederer, Bollinger and Pommery. Last year, when Britain hosted the G-20 meeting, another effervescent Nyetimber was served to President Barack Obama, Germany's Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
English bubbly is on the rise partly due to better winemaking techniques. But some vintners say they're being helped by another, unexpected factor: a warming climate.
Official data indicate that the past 10 years were the warmest on record globally. In England, this led to plumper and riper grapes most seasons, especially for sparkling wines. The number of vineyards in the U.K. jumped to 416 in 2008 from 363 in 2000, according the trade group English Wine Producers.

"Just 20 years ago, it was really difficult to make good wine in cooler climate areas," says Gregory Jones, who studies the effect of climate change on the global wine industry at Southern Oregon University. "Now it's not such a challenge."
With the help of warmer summers, "some of the risk of making sparkling wine here is gone," says Mike Roberts, founder and chief winemaker of the Ridgeview estate here, 45 miles south of London. "We have everything going for us to out-Champagne Champagne."
Last year, the fifth-hottest on record, Ridgeview's grapes ripened two weeks earlier than usual, allowing for the harvest to be brought in before the onset of wet October weather. Mr. Roberts and other English winemakers say 2009 was one of the best growing seasons they've seen.
Most connoisseurs insist that no sparkling wine can match the range, finesse and flavor of Champagne, made only in the Champagne region of northeastern France. Yet English fizz is bursting a bit of France's bubble.
Mr. Roberts' wines have won dozens of prizes, including a gold and silver medal at Effervescents du Monde, an international competition held in France. Another Ridgeview sparkler, blanc de blanc, was served at a 2004 bash to mark Queen Elizabeth's 80th birthday.

Many English still wines, including white and rosé varieties, have been considered thin and acidic. As the climate has warmed, they've benefited as well, becoming less acidic and more fruity. English reds still struggle, partly because those grapes need a much hotter climate to ripen well.
Sparkling wines have improved most, because England's warmer, drier summers now yield juicier grapes with more flavors—while still remaining cool enough to create the racy acidity so vital to a fizzy wine.
The Romans introduced winemaking to England after invading in 43 A.D. In the mid-1600s, English scientist Christopher Merret discovered that adding sugar to finished wine led to a second fermentation and yielded a fizzy wine. Later, Dom Pérignon came up with the idea of making sparkling wine with bubbles by blending grapes from different vineyards—a key development that gave French makers the sparkling advantage.
France's annual output of Champagne, some 320 million bottles, is much larger than the 1.4 million bottles of fizz England makes each year. Still, representatives of big Champagne houses such as Louis Roederer (maker of Cristal), Pol Roger and Duval-LeRoy have toured England, scoping out vineyard sites—and their smaller new rivals.
Roger Begault, export director of Champagne house Duval-LeRoy, founded in 1859, acknowledges that several English sparkling wines are "pleasant and well made." A few years ago, a Duval-LeRoy envoy surveyed southern England to consider starting up vineyards there. Still, he insists, "Champagne only comes from Champagne!"
Rising temperatures have helped France's Champagne makers, too. But if the trend continues, lower-end bubbly could be challenged, at least on price. English bottles today can cost anywhere from $27 to $37, roughly the same as non-vintage Champagne, and far less than the special vintages bottled in outstanding years.
The U.K. is the biggest importer of Champagne in the world, and today demand for domestic fizz is picking up. Of the 3.1 million bottles of U.K. wine produced in 2009, about 45% were of the sparkling variety, according to an estimate by English Wine Producers. In 2005, only 20% of domestic bottles produced were bubbly.
Waitrose, the grocery store chain that commands a 61% market share for English wines, has its own vineyard. A separate vine-growing project has sprung up just 12 miles from London. One local grower is planning a tiny vineyard in the heart of the city, outside Kings Cross Station.
Plumping up the market hasn't been easy. In the early 1990s, when Mr. Roberts of Ridgeview approached a bank for a loan to start his winery, he was rejected. "The bank manager said, 'You must be mad,"' recalls Mr. Roberts.
Using his own funds plus a loan, Mr. Roberts planted the first vines in 1994 and enlisted three consultants—including two from Champagne. He decided to make sparkling wine because southern England has a chalky soil similar to Champagne, and is only 88 miles to the north.
All of Ridgeview's products are named Merret, a nod to the 17th-century scientist. Since 1996, when the vineyard produced 20,000 bottles, production has grown nearly tenfold.
In an upstairs tasting room overlooking acres of now-bare vines, Mr. Roberts recently poured a 2006 sparkler. It was rich, with honey and caramel notes. "It was a good hot year," said Mr. Roberts.
Write to Gautam Naik at gautam.naik@wsj.com

I share their despair, but I'm not quite ready to climb the Dark Mountain

To sit back and wait for the collapse of industrial civilisation is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens value

George Monbiot
guardian.co.uk, Monday 10 May 2010 20.30 BST
Those who defend economic growth often argue that only rich countries can afford to protect the environment. The bigger the economy, the more money will be available for stopping pollution, investing in new forms of energy, preserving wilderness. Only the wealthy can live sustainably.
Anyone who has watched the emerging horror in the Gulf of Mexico in the past few days has cause to doubt this. The world's richest country decided not to impose the rules that might have prevented the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, arguing that these would impede the pursuit of greater wealth. Economic growth, and the demand for oil that it propelled, drove companies to drill in difficult and risky places.
But we needn't rely on this event to dismiss the cornucopians' thesis as self-serving nonsense. A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculates deforestation rates between 2000 and 2005 in the countries with the largest areas of forest cover. The nation with the lowest rate was the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The nation with the highest, caused by a combination of logging and fire, was the United States. Loss of forest cover there (6% of its own forests in five years) was almost twice as fast as in Indonesia and 10 times as fast as in the DRC. Why? Because those poorer countries have less money to invest in opening up remote places and felling trees.
The wealthy nations are plundering not only their own resources. The environmental disasters caused by the oil industry in Ecuador and Nigeria are not driven by Ecuadorian or Nigerian demand, but by the thirst for oil in richer nations. Deforestation in Indonesia is driven by the rich world's demand for palm oil and timber, in Brazil by our hunger for timber and animal feed.
The Guardian's carbon calculator reveals that the UK has greatly underestimated the climate impacts of our consumption. The reason is that official figures don't count outsourced emissions: the greenhouse gases produced by other countries manufacturing goods for our markets. Another recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the UK imports a net 253m tonnes of carbon dioxide, embodied in the goods it buys. When this is taken into account, we find that far from cutting emissions since 1990, as the last government claimed, we have increased them. Wealth wrecks the environment.
So the Dark Mountain Project, whose ideas are spreading rapidly through the environment movement, is worth examining. It contends that "capitalism has absorbed the greens". Instead of seeking to protect the natural world from the impact of humans, the project claims that environmentalists now work on "sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level which the world's rich people – us – feel is their right".
Today's greens, it charges, seek to sustain the culture that knackers the planet, demanding only that we replace old, polluting technologies with new ones – wind farms, solar arrays, wave machines – that wreck even more of the world's wild places. They have lost their feelings for nature, reducing the problem to an engineering challenge. They've forgotten that they are supposed to be defending the biosphere: instead they are trying to save industrial civilisation.
That task, Paul Kingsnorth – a co-founder of Dark Mountain – believes, is futile: "The civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it." Nor can we bargain with it, as "the economic system we rely upon cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it relies upon … growth in order to function". Instead of trying to reduce the impacts of our civilisation, we should "start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse … Our task is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can, whilst creating new myths which put humanity in its proper place".
Though a fair bit of this takes aim at my writing and the ideas I champion, I recognise the truth in it. Something has been lost along the way. Among the charts and tables and technofixes, in the desperate search for green solutions that can work politically and economically, we have tended to forget the love of nature that drew us into all this.
But I cannot make the leap that Dark Mountain demands. The first problem with its vision is that industrial civilisation is much more resilient than it proposes. In the opening essay of the movement's first book, to be published this week, John Michael Greer proposes that conventional oil supplies peaked in 2005, that gas will peak by 2030, and that coal will do so by 2040.
While I'm prepared to believe that oil supplies might decline in the next few years, his coal prediction is hogwash. Energy companies in the UK, as the latest ENDS report shows, are now beginning to deploy a technology that will greatly increase available reserves. Government figures suggest that underground coal gasification – injecting oxygen into coal seams and extracting the hydrogen and methane they release – can boost the UK's land-based coal reserves 70-fold; and it opens up even more under the seabed. There are vast untapped reserves of other fossil fuels – bitumen, oil shale, methane clathrates – that energy companies will turn to if the price is right.
Like all cultures, industrial civilisation will collapse at some point. Resource depletion and climate change are likely causes. But I don't believe it will happen soon: not in this century, perhaps not even in the next. If it continues to rely on economic growth, if it doesn't reduce its reliance on primary resources, our civilisation will tank the biosphere before it goes down. To sit back and wait for what the Dark Mountain people believe will be civilisation's imminent collapse, without trying to change the way it operates, is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens are supposed to value.
Nor do I accept their undiscriminating attack on industrial technologies. There is a world of difference between the impact of windfarms and the impact of mining tar sands or drilling for oil: the turbines might spoil the view but, as the latest disaster shows, the effects of oil seep into the planet's every pore. And unless environmentalists also seek to sustain the achievements of industrial civilisation – health, education, sanitation, nutrition – the field will be left to those who rightly wish to preserve them, but don't give a stuff about the impacts.
We can accept these benefits while rejecting perpetual growth. We can embrace engineering while rejecting many of the uses to which it is put. We can defend healthcare while attacking useless consumption. This approach is boring, unromantic, uncertain of success, but a lot less ugly than the alternatives.
For all that, the debate this project has begun is worth having, which is why I'll be going to the Dark Mountain festival this month. There are no easy answers to the fix we're in. But there are no easy non-answers either.

Tar sands crude is reaching British petrol stations, Greenpeace says

• Greenpeace seeks tougher rules against imports of 'dirty oil'• BP is upgrading refineries to process oil from tar sands

Terry Macalister
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 9 May 2010 17.19 BST
British motorists are unwitting users of diesel and petrol derived from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, where carbon-heavy production methods make extraction particularly damaging to the environment, Greenpeace claims.
The environmental group is calling for action by the European commission to strengthen fuel-quality directive regulations to restrict the import of petroleum products made in a carbon-intensive way.
The move comes as the tar sands producers appear to be trying to use the BP oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico as a public relations tool to promote their industry over deepwater drilling.
In a report out on Tuesday Greenpeace says that it has spent time tracking tar sands crude over 12 months and believes that considerable quantities are now being exported to Europe, via refineries in the southern states of the US.
While City investors have begun to question the role of companies such as BP and Shell in the tar sands business, British environmentalists – and consumers – have tended to believe that Alberta crude is used only in North America.
But the Greenpeace report, entitled Tar Sands in Your Tank: Exposing Europe's role in Canada's dirty oil trade, comes to different conclusions.
"The reach of tar sands crude is wider than previously thought. In fact, petroleum products derived partly from tar sands crude oil have been regularly entering the European Union's petroleum supply chain," it concludes.
The environmentalists believe this practice will become more widespread. One company claimed to be at the centre of the trade, the US refiner Valero Energy, plans to increase supplies at its Port Arthur refinery significantly via a controversial new pipeline from Canada to the US Gulf coast, where the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig sank, causing a huge oil leak.
Greenpeace also believes that BP has refined at least one consignment of tar sands crude at the Texas City plant on the same coast, which is a regular location for exporting diesel to Europe.
The rival oil producer ExxonMobil is also handling Canadian tar sands at its Baytown refinery near Houston and has exported at least one diesel shipment to Europe over the period studied, according to Greenpeace.
The green group admits that it cannot ultimately prove that any particular consignment derived from Canada ended up in Britain or Europe, given that refined diesel or petrol is of a uniform quality, but it says that the weight of evidence firmly points in this direction.
Exxon said that it could not comment on tar sands refining or exporting.
"The crude oils we process at our refineries come from a variety of sources around the world," said a spokesman. "However, what types of crude are processed at each refinery, how much, and when are all details that we do not discuss publicly as a matter of practice."
Valero confirmed that it was part of a project to expand the Keystone pipeline from western Canada down to the US Gulf Coast. "Once the Keystone pipeline expansion is complete in 2012 or 2013, Valero expects to be one of the largest recipients of heavy crude oil from the project," a company spokesman said. He added that much of that oil would be refined at Port Arthur, which is geared up to process heavy crude.
Valero also confirmed that its refineries were exporting diesel to Europe, but said that: "Exports of gasoline [petrol] from the US to Europe are rare, since Europe usually has an oversupply of gasoline."
BP, which is investing heavily in tar sand production and upgrading refineries near the Great Lakes specifically to refine this crude, had no comment to make on any existing exports.
Glen Schmidt, chief executive of Laricina Energy, part of the industry lobby group In Situ Oil Sands Alliance, told the Edmonton Journal in Canada that while there were sometimes failures with conventional oil and tar sands projects, "the damage would be much smaller and more modest than with offshore spills".
Similarly an editorial in the Calgary Herald said: "Anyone assessing the risks associated with drilling offshore versus the oil sands is going to be looking at things much differently today than he would have last week. All of a sudden it's a choice between risks that are quantifiable versus those that are unknown."

UN report warns of economic impact of biodiversity loss

The 'alarming' rate of nature loss could harm food sources and industry, and exacerbate climate change, UN report warns• World fails to meet target to halt biodiversity declineQ&A: What is biodiversity and why is it important?
Juliette Jowit
guardian.co.uk, Monday 10 May 2010 11.36 BST
The "alarming" rate at which species are being lost could have a severe effect on humanity, conservationists warned today. Targets set eight years ago by governments to reduce biodiversity loss by 2010 have not been met, experts confirmed at a UN meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.
The third Global Biodiversity Outlook report said loss of wildlife and habitats could harm food sources and industry, and exacerbate climate change through rising emissions.
Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said: "Humanity has fabricated the illusion that somehow we can get by without biodiversity or that it is somehow peripheral to our contemporary world: the truth is we need it more than ever on a planet of 6 billion [people], heading to over 9 billion by 2050. Business as usual is no longer an option if we are to avoid irreversible damage to the life-support systems of our planet."
The report confirms what a coalition of 40 conservation organisations said last month, when they claimed there have been "alarming biodiversity declines". The coalition said that pressures on the natural world from development, over-use and pollution have risen since the ambition to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss was set out in the 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
The first formal assessment of the target, published at the end of April in the journal Science, is the basis of today's formal declaration. This week's meeting will see governments pressed to take the issues as seriously as climate change and the economic crisis.
"Since 1970 we have reduced animal populations by 30%, the area of mangroves and sea grasses by 20% and the coverage of living corals by 40%," said Prof Joseph Alcamo, chief scientist of the UNEP.
"These losses are clearly unsustainable, since biodiversity makes a key contribution to human wellbeing and sustainable development."
The Science study compiled 30 indicators of biodiversity, including changes in populations of species and their risk of extinction, the remaining areas of different habitats, and the composition of communities of plants and animals.
"Our analysis shows that governments have failed to deliver on the commitments they made in 2002: biodiversity is still being lost as fast as ever, and we have made little headway in reducing the pressures on species, habitats and ecosystems," said Stuart Butchart, the paper's lead author.
"Our data shows that 2010 will not be the year that biodiversity loss was halted, but it needs to be the year in which we start taking the issue seriously and substantially increase our efforts to take care of what is left of our planet."
The failure to meet the CBD target will not be a surprise to experts or policymakers, who have warned for years that too little progress was being made. Last month the head of the IUCN species survival commission, Simon Stuart, told the Guardian that for the first time since the dinosaurs, species were believed to be becoming extinct faster than new ones were evolving.

Gulf oil spill: plugging the leak

BP engineers may try to bung up the Deepwater Horizon leak by pumping debris such as bits of tyres and golf balls into the well. It's a long shot known as a 'junk shot', but it might just work

Since the Deepwater Horizon explosion two weeks ago, it has been hard not to view as primitive the efforts to contain the oil and prevent more of it leaking.
Whether it is the containment booms drafted in to prevent the oil washing ashore or early efforts to set the oil on fire, or even the attempts to funnel the leaking oil via giant sunken towers, the somewhat low-tech containment efforts starkly contrast with the often hi-tech methods usually witnessed in deep-sea drilling.
The latest BP plan being weighed up is similarly low-tech. Engineers may try to plug the well by pumping debris into it at high pressure, a method known as a "junk shot".
"They are actually going to take a bunch of debris - some shredded up tyres, golf balls and things like that - and under very high pressure shoot it into the preventer itself and see if they can clog it up to stop the leak," the US Coast Board Admiral Thad Allen told CBS News yesterday.
Tyres, golf balls, and "things like that" do not immediately inspire confidence, However Dr Simon Boxall, oceanographer at the National Oceanography centre in Southampton, Hampshire, said the unique conditions of the Deepwater Horizon spill – there has never been an oil leak at this depth before – mean all traditional methods "go out of the window".
There have been blow outs in shallow water, but with those you're looking at 100-metre-deep tops, where you can get divers down and you can get equipment down," he said.
"It's nothing compared to doing it 1,500m [5,000ft] down – this goes beyond all our technological knowhow and experience.".
Boxall said a junk shot has been tried before, although he was only aware of one incident, which took place at a much shallower depth.
"We're working in completely new territory, but the idea is not quite as daft as it sounds," he said.
"Bear in mind the pressures at these depths are phenomenal, so what seems like an odd thing to bung a hole with at the surface can actually work quite well. Golf balls seem really quite hard but actually they're quite soft.
"Certainly if you add a tonne of pressure per square inch to a golf ball then it starts to give. So I guess what they're looking to do is use these things that are slightly plastic in their feel to bung into a hole which will help bung it up."
The main problem for engineers is how to get the debris into the well almost a mile beneath the surface. The plan is to block the well beneath the semi-operational cut-off valves – at the moment, the well is partly shut off, restricting the oil flow – without making the spill worse.
"They're planning to sort of try and insert them somehow magically before the cut off valve, but that doesn't quite make sense," Boxall said.
"All these things you can imagine are perfectly feasible on land if you had whatever technology was available to bung them in the hole.
"But when you're looking at some mechanism to fire them into a hole when you're a mile down in seawater, I can't imagine what they would use, unless they're using compressed air – but that is difficult at those depths anyway because the pressures are so great."
He added: "There are one or two engineers out there who seem to be thinking: 'This is ok as long as we don't cause more damage than we solve.'"
BP's ultimate solution to the leak is to drill a relief well, but that could take up to three months before that is completed. In the meantime, they will continue to try and position a cofferdam over one of the leaks today.