Environment | OUR PLANET EARTH

Burying our heads in the sand

We’ve all heard the warning, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

Still, with daily reports harping on the dangers of climate change, just about any method to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is getting a closer look.

Carbon capture and storage is one of those technologies.

Especially for governments wedded to coal and oil, which means just about all of them, carbon capture looks like a very attractive option for emissions reductions.

Proponents of CCS — also known as carbon capture and sequestration — claim it will allow us to keep making energy the way we always have, by burning oil and coal. But instead of releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere every year, we can remove the carbon before or after we burn the fuel and bury it deep underground.

Of course no one in their right mind is thinking of this as a permanent solution to carbon emissions — except oil and coal companies, and the Bush administration.

“The notion is that the sooner we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, the sooner we’ll be able to tackle the climate problem,” says Sally Benson, executive director of the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) and Stanford University professor of energy resources engineering. “But the idea that we can take fossil fuels out of the mix very quickly is unrealistic. We’re reliant on fossil fuels, and a good pathway is to find ways to use them that don’t create a problem for the climate.”

CCS technologies are seen as most appropriate for large, stationary facilities that burn fossil fuels, such as electricity-generating power plants and cement factories, notes Lynn Orr, director of GCEP and also a Stanford professor of energy resources engineering. Their comments appear in an article (June 12, 2007) on the ScienceDaily.com Web site.

As for subterranean storage space, there’s no shortage at the moment. Worldwide storage capacity for carbon dioxide sequestration ranges from between 2 trillion and 10 trillion tons, according to a CCS report released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But with global human emissions of carbon dioxide nearing 30 billion tons per year, we’re going to need to capture and sequester huge amounts of carbon if we hope to stabilize and reduce CO2levels in the atmosphere, and prevent dramatic changes in climate.

“The best storage options today lie in geologic sequestration-storage in old oil fields, natural gas reservoirs, deep saline aquifers and unminable coal beds hundreds to thousands of meters underground. Viable locations must have a caprock, or an impermeable layer above the reservoir shaped like an upside-down bowl, that traps the gas and keeps it from escaping,” reports ScienceDaily.

The obvious concern related to carbon sequestration is that the carbon will somehow leak to the surface and cause more global warming, which would defeat the whole purpose of underground storage, admits Benson.

However she and her colleagues are confident. “If you do it right, if you select the site correctly and monitor, it can be near permanent,” Benson said.

Nevertheless, accidents and leaks can’t be ruled out any more than we can ensure that a nuclear power plant will be accident-free.

In fact, sometimes Earth burps lethal amounts of CO2 naturally: In August 1986, a pocket of magma beneath Lake Nyos in Cameroon caused the lake to release a cloud of CO2 that suffocated 1,700 people and 3,500 head of livestock.

Still, for policymakers looking for a technological quick fix, CCS is pretty seductive.

“Today, fossil fuels provide about 80 percent of global energy demand and the outlook is that they will remain the dominant source of energy for decades to come,” states the International Energy Agency (IEA) of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development in a report released following a June 2007 meeting. “Consequently, global energy-related CO2 emissions increase 55 percent between 2004 and 2030 in a business-as- usual outlook. It is increasingly clear that this development path is not sustainable. Carbon dioxide capture and storage is a critical technology to significantly reduce CO2 emissions.”

The conference, Near Term Opportunities for Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, was aimed at accelerating the development and commercialization of CCS.

“Climate science is compelling and implies urgent action, (and) CCS costs must be reduced and cost-cutting innovations come from accumulating field experience, i.e. learning-by-doing,” urge the authors of the report.

They also make CCS sound compellingly simple. “The process chain has three stages: capturing CO2 from fuel and industrial processing, electricity generation plants and compressing it; transporting the CO2 by pipeline or tanker; and, injecting the CO2 into a suitable geological formation for long-term isolation from the atmosphere,” explains the report.

As for the technologies, they have been used in other applications for decades but have not yet been integrated. “No full- scale plants are in operation that demonstrate all aspects of CCS,” admits the report.

The largest obstacle is acceptance. “Public awareness and support for CCS as a climate-change abatement option require significant efforts to provide credible messages on the benefits and risks of CCS,” urges the IEA.

And this is where the tapestry of business-as-usual optimism begins to unravel.

Earlier this month, Greenpeace International, based in the Netherlands, released a pointed critique of CCS based on peer-reviewed research. The report, “False Hope: Why Carbon Capture Won’t Save the Climate,” explains why investment in CCS is misdirected:

“CCS cannot deliver in time to avoid dangerous climate change. The earliest possibility for deployment of CCS at utility scale is not expected before 2030. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions have to start falling after 2015, just seven years away.

“CCS wastes energy. The technology uses between 10 and 40 percent of the energy produced by a power station. Wide-scale adoption of CCS is expected to erase the efficiency gains of the last 50 years and increase resource consumption by one-third.

“Storing carbon underground is risky. Safe and permanent storage of CO2 cannot be guaranteed. Even very low leakage rates could undermine any climate mitigation efforts.

“CCS is expensive. It could lead to a doubling of plant costs and an electricity price increase of 21-91 percent. Money spent on CCS will divert investments away from sustainable solutions to climate change.

“CCS carries significant liability risks. It poses a threat to health, ecosystems and the climate. It is unclear how severe these risks will be.

“The climate crisis requires urgent action. Climate scientists warn that to avoid the worst effects, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015 and then start falling by at least 50 percent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. Coal is the most polluting of all fossil fuels, and it is the single greatest threat to the climate. If current plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in coal plants are realized, CO2 emissions from coal could increase 60 percent by 2030.”

Also this month, on the other side of the Atlantic, a group of 45 U.S. environmental groups sent an open letter to members of the U.S. Congress calling on their representatives to oppose all CCS projects.

The groups’ arguments echo the Greenpeace report and conclude with a plea to end America’s heavy dependence on coal.

“CCS cannot make coal clean. Renewable energy sources are already available without the negative environmental impacts that are associated with fossil fuel exploitation, transport and processing. It is renewable energy together with energy efficiency and energy conservation that has to increase so that the primary cause of climate change — the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas — is stopped,” states the letter.

Congress, however, is beholden to the fossil fuel lobby, and with CCS as their “Get out of Jail Free” card, coal and oil companies will be emboldened to dig even deeper in their search for “black gold.”

And the gold rush has already begun. The Guardian reported earlier this month that Shell Oil is diving back into oil, shedding its “green” portfolio.

“The future of the world’s largest offshore wind farm . . . was thrown into doubt last night after it emerged that Shell was backing out of the project and indicated it would prefer to invest in more lucrative oil schemes. . . . Shell, which earlier this week reported first quarter profits of £4 billion (¥820 billion), has been selling off much of its solar business while moving more into Canada’s carbon-heavy tar sands,” reported Terry Macalister on May 1.

Shell is not alone. According to Macalister, BP Oil will spend £4 billion on renewable energy investments over a 10-year period, while the cash they sink into oil and gas investments will be well over double that amount, annually.

Sure, you say, they’re oil companies, they’re supposed to invest in oil.

The problem is that fossil fuels are no longer compatible with life on a planet hosting nearly 7 billion people. Oil and coal dependence is terminal.

But we have yet to get our heads around this reality. In the U.S., China and India, there are plans to build 900 new conventional coal electric power plants, says Marty Hoffert, Professor Emeritus of Physics and former Chair of the Department of Applied Science at New York University (thebreakthrough.org).

Yes, CCS might provide one small step for humankind toward cleaning up the planet and switching to alternative and renewable sources of energy. But that is exactly what the lobbyists and fossil fuel companies want us to believe, so that they can take us all one giant step deeper into oil and coal addiction.

Stephen Hesse welcomes comments at: stevehesse@hotmail.com

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