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A Plan to Save Us From Global Warming? Industry's Colossal Experiment With the Future of Civilization at Stake

It's looking more and more like we're facing catastrophe from global warming, but the fossil fuel industry has prepared an escape for us. Too bad it looks like a nightmare, too.

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Two things are blocking the road ahead for CCS -- lack of funds and a skeptical public. The fossil corporations don't want to pay to bury CO2 -- that's for taxpayers, as they see it. And members of the public living near proposed burial sites are simply asking, "Are you crazy?" Yes, CO2 is familiar as the fizzy in soda and beer (and yes, you exhale CO2 as you breathe), but when CO2 gets loose in concentrated form it creates an invisible puddle on the ground, which excludes oxygen, rapidly killing everything in its path. A rare natural eruption of CO2 from the bottom of  Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 asphyxiated 1,746 people in their sleep. Few people want to live anywhere near a huge, buried puddle of liquid CO2 that might one day leak.

Burying CO2 in the ground is sometimes called "clean coal" but it's much  bigger than just coal. It means capturing CO2 gas from industrial sources like power plants, cement kilns, oil refineries, and garbage incinerators, compressing it into a liquid, and pumping it a mile or more below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. It's a gigantic experiment, with the future of civilization in the balance.

The first full-scale industrial plant designed for CCS is supposed to start up in Linden, New Jersey in 2017, though it hasn't yet broken ground (and may never). It's called PurGen, and each year it would convert 1.6 million tons of coal into 600,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer, plus generate some electricity during hours of peak demand.

PurGen is a "clean coal" plant that would release at least 1.7 million pounds of noxious air pollutants each year just a few hundred yards upwind of Staten Island, N.Y., home to half a million people. The area around Linden and Staten Island already fails to meet federal health-based air standards. In addition, N.J. state government has officially designated Linden an "environmental justice" community because its population is disproportionately black and Hispanic, with high asthma rates.

PurGen would capture much of its own CO2, plus gather CO2 from other industries in north Jersey, compress it into a liquid, then pipe it out to sea for permanent storage below the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The 2-foot-diameter pipe carrying liquid CO2 would extend 140 miles from Linden (at Exit 12 on the N.J. Turnpike) to a spot 70 miles offshore from Atlantic City, where a permanent platform similar to an oil rig would pump a total of 500 million tons of CO2 a mile below the seabed, 10 million tons per year for 50 years.

And PurGen is just the beginning. Implementation of the 2005 plan calls for ( large PDF) construction of 3,400 full-scale CCS burial projects between 2020 and 2050, some beneath land, some beneath the ocean, with 1,200 of them in G8 countries and another 2,200 in China, India, Russia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. Another estimate, by Harvard's Daniel Schrag, sees as much as two trillion tons (or more) of pressurized liquid CO2 being buried this century. If that happened, even low leakage rates could release tonnages of CO2 sufficient to create a new global-warming threat.

As with fracking, CCS has created a chasm of suspicion and mistrust within the environmental movement. The Big Green environmentalists with offices in Washington, D.C.  favor fracking to produce natural gas, so long as it's subject to "the best regulations," whatever that means. Unfortunately, no matter how strict the regulations may be, burning natural gas inevitably produces CO2, so Big Green also  favors burying CO2 in the ground. Big Green assumes we face a fossil-fueled future and therefore we need CCS. Unfortunately, Big Green's support of CCS becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, helping create a fossil-fueled future. The fossil corporations are already using the promise of CCS to lobby powerfully against investments in efficiency or renewables, locking us into a fossil future.

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