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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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But not everyone is buying it. Grassroots groups -- led by people living near the fracking rigs, the coal plants, and the CO2 burial experiments -- oppose CCS and favor aggressive energy  efficiency. They argue that huge improvements in efficiency (doing more with less) are affordable (even profitable) and available off the shelf today. Further, they argue, efficiency can create tens of thousands of good jobs almost immediately and can save trillions of dollars, which in turn can pay for a modern renewable-energy economy based on even greater efficiency plus solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels, hydro, tidal power and a modernized electric grid.

David Goldstein, who won a MacArthur "genius" award, has spelled out the realistic possibilities of efficiency in his book  Invisible Energy. Goldstein argues that it would be easy to run the U.S. economy with only half the energy we currently use. Running the economy on only 20 percent of current energy (or even less) would be more difficult, but is doable, Goldstein argues. And he's  not alone. (See also Sovacool, 2008.)

Of course the fossil corporations don't want efficiency -- they want to sell product. They favor creative ways to mine and burn oil, gas and coal, burying the hazardous waste CO2 below ground. In supporting CCS the fossil corporations are joined by major fossil users -- car companies, electric utilities, the mining and mining-services industries, and the railroads. Together they form a potent political force with essentially limitless funds with which to buy elections. So, yes, Barack Obama favors offshore oil, coal, fracking, and CCS. So long as we allow big money to influence our democratic institutions (legislatures, courts, and elections) any president will have to fall in line.

A Letter to Lisa Jackson

Recently CCS has been critiqued by a group of environmental justice advocates, joined by scientists and engineers from Harvard, Georgia Tech, University of South Carolina, and Dillard University, calling themselves the Environmental Justice and Science Initiative. In April 2011, 18 members of the Initiative signed a long  letter to Lisa Jackson, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opposing the PurGen proposal in Linden and spelling out a host of technical concerns about CCS. (Full disclosure: I signed the letter.)

The Jackson letter makes some of the following points, among others:

  • A CCS industry large enough to make a real difference in global warming would have to be enormous. Burying one-eighth of global CO2 emissions today would require an infrastructure the size of the global petroleum industry.
  • CCS only buries CO2 and does not address the other health or environmental effects from mining, transport, processing or burning of fossil fuels.
  • A CCS system requires large amounts of energy to operate. When equipped with CCS, an industrial plant requires 25 percent to 40 percent more fossil fuel than the same plant without CCS. In other words, for every four power plants fitted with CCS, we'd need a fifth plant just to run all the CCS equipment. This large "energy penalty" for CCS contributes to high costs, excessive wastes, and more human disease from mining and burning fossil fuels. 
  • An industrial philosophy that promotes wasteful technologies violates the principles of both  green chemistry and green engineering.
  • Every dollar spent on CCS is a dollar that can't be invested in a modern energy system based on maximum efficiency and renewables. The International Energy Agency (IEA)  estimates that a CCS system large enough to manage 20 percent of global CO2 emissions in 2050 would cost $45 trillion. And sooner or later, we'll run out of affordable fossil fuels, so eventually we'll have to pay to develop renewables anyway. Why not skip the costly, experimental CO2 burial stage and go for efficiency and renewables now?
  • Leaks and releases of concentrated CO2 are toxic to plants and animals, including humans. 
  • Long-term leakage to the atmosphere will be an ongoing concern for millennia. CCS sites would have to be monitored for leakage for something like 4,000 to 10,000 years, with someone standing ready all that time to plug leaks (if plugging is even feasible). Humans have never created a watchdog agency intended to last for millennia. And this watchdog would have to coordinate operations at thousands of CO2 burial sites in dozens of countries, essentially forever. Does this sound like something humans can manage?
  • Judging by the PurGen example, CCS plants may tend to end up in communities of color already burdened with pollution. EPA should oppose any such trend, and should definitely oppose the PurGen project, the letter said.

This, then, is the escape plan the fossil corporations say will ensure our future (and their outsized profits). Congress, President Obama, Big Green, and everyone else chasing a slice of the $45 trillion CCS pie are all betting the future of civilization. They say long-term leakage can be managed and nothing can go seriously wrong. Hmmm. What if it turns out they are mistaken?

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