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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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By ignoring global warming, the U.S. is painting itself (and the world) into a corner. But now the fossil fuel industry has prepared an escape for us. You may not have heard of it, but the escape is called "carbon capture and storage" or CCS for short. It has never been tried on anything like the scale needed to limit global warming, so it's a colossal experiment with the future of civilization at stake. More on that in a moment, but first let's look at the corner we're in:

  • The chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently said, "The world is perfectly on track to 11 degrees Fahrenheit increase in temperature, which is very bad news. And everybody, even school children, know this will have catastrophic implications for all of us."
  • We face unprecedented tornadoes like the one that ripped away much of Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011.
  • Parts of our Southwest (and Mexico) are now dryer than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, with irregular snow pack in the Rockies disrupting water supplies and reducing crop yields. By all accounts, the future of water in the Southwest is grim
  • Drought-induced insect infestations are destroying forests across the western states and mega-wildfires are increasing on every continent except Antarctica.
  • Record floods disrupted the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys during 2011, not to mention Biblical floods in Australia, India and Pakistan where tens of millions of people were displaced.

And we're just in the early stages of climate chaos. As the song says, "You ain't seen nothing yet."

The 2005 Plan of Action

You don't hear much about it, but Bush-Cheney in 2005 endorsed a plan to bail us out of this mess and we're still following their script. Back then, the G8 nations, led by the U.S., formally adopted a "Plan of Action." In it, the G8 (Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the U.S.) committed to building a global infrastructure for "carbon capture and storage" (CCS), which means burying carbon dioxide (CO2) in the ground. Now, seven years later, that infrastructure is being built worldwide. The centerpiece is the Global CCS Institute created in 2009. (The "S" in CCS can stand for "sequestration" or "storage" but it's the same thing -- burying pressurized CO2 in liquid form about a mile below ground.)

CCS is by no means the only strategy in the 2005 Plan of Action -- there's plenty about efficiency (doing more with less) and renewable energy (solar, wind, and so forth). But the U.S. is playing down efficiency and renewables in favor of fracking for natural gas and mountaintop removal mining for coal, both of which produce CO2. Therefore the plan says we'll develop CCS, which is a get-out-of-jail-free card for fossil fuel corporations. With CCS, we could continue burning fossil fuels as long as they last and pass the CO2 on to our grandchildren's grandchildren to worry about, manage, and pay for.

CCS is being readied for that time when the chaos, heat and misery from global warming become intolerable and people start begging (or rioting) for relief -- say, sometime between 2015 and 2030. If history is any guide, the 1 percent will use the crisis to stampede us into paying for their escape plan, which they're quietly preparing now. Although there are very few actual in-the-ground demonstrations of CCS today, in preparation for large-scale operations there are now hundreds of regional consortiums, research groups, think tanks, policy initiatives, interdisciplinary collaborations, engineering firms, trade associations, consultants, risk assessors, mathematical modelers, environmental impact assessors, public opinion managers, professional conferences, technical workshops, national laboratories, other federal, state and provincial government agencies, international agreements and treaties, summer schools, university degree programs, environmental organizations, and philanthropic foundations -- all committed to the plan to bury CO2 in the ground.

Impediments

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.

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?

Peter Montague is a historian and journalist whose work has appeared in Counterpunch, Huffington Post, the Nation and many other publications. He has co-authored two books on toxic heavy metals.
 
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