Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Carbon Sequestration

Introductory Comment: Carbon sequestration is a very bad idea. It would be extremely expensive. Sequestration would require the expensive and energy intensive capture of gases discharged from the burning of coal in power plants, the separation of CO2 out of those gases, and the discharge of other gases, the concentration of CO2, the transportation of CO2, via pipeline, to locations were underground geological formations are believed to provide a safe environment for gas sequestration and the injection of trillions of tons of CO2 deep into the earth, from whence it is piously hoped that it will not escape. The technology involves the recapture of CO2 gas produced by burning coal and the injection of that gas deep underground in massive amounts has not been developed yet. The recapture of CO2 would require a lot of very complex and expensive equiptment, that would greatly increase the cost of building a new coal fired steam plant. The operation of that equipment would place a significant drain on the power produced by the coal fired electrical generation plants, No one yet knows what sequestering technology will cost build and operate, but it is quite conceivable that it would cost more retrofit existing coal fired power plants or build new power plants with sequestration technology, than it would cost to build new reactor powered electrical generating plants. The sequestration system would also be expensive to operate, and would require a large ammount of energy. Both capital and operational costs would add to the cost of coal generated electricity. In contrast, while reactors are presently expensive to build, they are inexpensive to operate. Even now, coal fired electrical generation is far more expensive to operate than reactors are. As the South African electrical company Eskram states, "...while nuclear is expensive to build, it is vastly cheaper to operate, and, at this stage, provides the only true low-carbon alternative to coal."

The likely costs of CO2 sequestration present an enormous obsticle to its implimation, but they pose a far less serious objection than questions about the environmental consequences of CO2 sequestration. CO2 sequestration involves the injection of enormous amounts of CO2 deep underground. If the CO2 sequestration approach was taken as a solution to the CO2 emission process, Peter Montague argues that it would involve the inhection, under high pressure of trillions of tons of CO2 underground. Not anyone who has studied Freshman geology in college might wonder if all of that CO2 gas is going to stay were it is injected. The most likely answer is that some probably will, but some will not. Underground gas under high pressure, would be driven by natural forces upward, unless it is confronted with an impermiable rock strata. We know that natural gas is trapped far underground by such strata. But a tiny weakness in the trapping strata might all trapped gas to escape upwards, until it eventually erupts at the surface. There is the danger.

Nuclear power critics worry about the unreliability of sequestering relatively small amounts of solid radioactive materials underground. Yet unlike CO2, once sequestered, solid matrials would not be under natural pressure to move from their place of sequestration. Thus CO2 sequestration would be far more problematic than the sequestration of nuclear materials. If CO2 were to escape its underground confinement, it could errupt violently on the earth's surface, and then be emmitted into the atmosphere.

Thus even if sequestration technology were implimented, and I very much doubt that it will be, the potential for catitostropic leaks would be high.

So what is this all about?

A Siegel, a Daily Kos blogger ( yesterday opened the discussion on CO2 sequestration, by pointing to an artical from The Environmental News Service, by Peter Montague, titled "INSIGHTS: Carbon Sequestration." What is most interesting about the Montague article is the role played by a little known midwestern foundation, The Joyce Foundation, and some mainstream environmentalist groups, in the lobbying campaign for coal sequestration :

The Joyce Foundation was previously best known for its funding on gun control issues. The Joyce Foundation favored gun control laws, and funded gen control lobbying and education. The Joyce Foundation's mission statement includes words:
"The Joyce Foundation supports efforts to protect the natural environment of the Great Lakes, to reduce poverty and violence in the region, and to ensure that its people have access to good schools, decent jobs, and a diverse and thriving culture."

Now were CO2 sequestration a good idea, it would fall under the Joyce Foundation's mission. There are large coal deposits in the middle west, and coal mines do supply jobs. But the midwest coal mining business is morbund, because midwestern coal has a high sulfer content, and current government policy controls the emission of sulfer from coal fired electrical generation plants. Sequestering CO2 would also inevitably involve the sequestering of SO2 gas that had been generated by the burning of high sulfer coal. Thus CO2 sequestration would benefit midwestern coalmines, and provide some well paying jobs for midwesterners. At the same time coal sequestration in the rather half baked theory, benefit the midwestern environment. This is all very noble and high minded, but utterly insane.

So the Joyce Foundation is, in effect, acting as a coal industry front, either with its own money, or as a conduit for Coal Industry money. Who does the money for CO2 lobbying go to? Montague has provided us with some interersting information. The "Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Izaak Walton League, the Clean Air Task Force, the Michigan Environmental Council, and others have received substantial grants to advocate for carbon sequestration."

Siegel, the Daily Kos blogger, has added to the picture by ferriting out Joyce Founndation grants:

Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development Inc. Minneapolis, Amount: $99,400.00
To brief Midwest lawmakers and regulators about how advanced coal technologies are currently deployed in Europe and encourage their support for similar adoption here.

Clean Air Task Force Inc. Boston, MA, Amount: $55,000.00
To support a delegation of Midwest policy makers, industry representatives, and environmental groups to visit European coal gasification projects and meet with European counterparts.

Clean Air Task Force Inc. Boston, MA, Amount: $60,000.00
To retain local counsel and technical experts to appear in the licensing hearings for a proposed IGCC project.

Izaak Walton League of America Inc., St. Paul, MN, Amount: $350,000.00,
To continue to encourage the deployment of advanced coal generation in Minnesota and to promote policies that enable and encourage carbon capture and storage.

Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development Inc. Minneapolis, Amount: $99,400.00

Union of Concerned Scientists Inc., Cambridge, MA, Amount: $75,000.00
URL: ww.ucsusa.or
To support its efforts to study and highlight the financial risks of future carbon dioxide emission limits.

CUB Consumer Education and Research Fund, Chicago, IL, Amount: $75,000.00
Length: 1 year
To promote new policies supporting coal gasification and carbon sequestration for new electric generation in Illinois.

Clean Air Task Force Inc. Boston, MA Amount: $787,500.00 Length: 21 mos.
To promote Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle for the next generation of coal plants in the upper Midwest.

Clean Wisconsin Inc. Madison, WI Amount: $500,000.00 Length: 1 year
To oppose conventional coal plants proposed in Wisconsin and promoting coal gasification with sequestration as an alternative. The Wisconsin Citizens Utility Board would be a partner in the intervention and campaign.

Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development
Minneapolis, MN Amount: $437,500.00 Length: 21 mos.
To support the efforts of its Coal Gasification Working Group.

National Wildlife Federation, Reston, VA Amount: $122,700.00 Length: 21 mos.
To build support in Indiana and Michigan for coal gasification as an alternative to conventional coal-burning power plants.

Indiana Wildlife Federation and Michigan United Conservation Clubs would be partners in this effort. National Resources Defense Council;
For its efforts to oppose the construction of new conventional coal plants and promote alternative plants using coal gasification with carbon sequestration.

Ohio Environmental Council, Columbus, OH, Amount: $113,750.00
Length: 21 mos.
URL: To support its ongoing efforts to promote Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle in Ohio and to oppose the permitting of a conventional coal plant proposed by AMP-Ohio, a municipal utility consortium.

Resources for the Future Inc. Washington, DC, Amount: $75,000.00
To conduct a quantitative assessment of the risks to shareholders and electric utility ratepayers of investing in various coal combustion technologies.

Rockefeller Family Fund New York, NY Amount: $50,000.00
To support ongoing coal advocacy activities of the Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Center on Wisconsin Strategy Madison, WI, Amount: $175,000.00
To build support among labor leaders in Wisconsin and other Midwest states for coal gasification as an alternative to conventional coal power plants.

The list is reminnicent of the list of contributions made by EXXON to anti-global warming fronts, and raises two questions. The first is does this reflect a coal industry disinformation campaign? The second questions concerns the willingness willingness of environmental interest groups, and advocacy groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, to serve as coal industry disinformation fronts. No doubt many of these groups have been duped, and it is entirely likely that the board of the Joyce Foundation has been dupped as well.

I am posting:
INSIGHTS: Carbon Sequestration
By Peter Montague

NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey, November 19, 2007 (ENS) - In response to a relentless stream of bad news about global warming, a cluster of major industries has formed a loose partnership with big environmental groups, prestigious universities, philanthropic foundations, and the U.S. federal government - all promoting a technical quick-fix for global warming called carbon sequestration.

Carbon sequestration is a plan to capture and bury as much as 10 trillion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide deep in the ground, hoping it will stay there forever. Though the plan has not yet received any substantial publicity, it is very far along.

The purpose of the plan is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels - coal, oil and natural gas. Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas, which is thought to be contributing to global warming.
Nevada Power's Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant has a higher emission rate of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide than any other power plant in the United States. (Photo courtesy DCNR)

A carbon sequestration program would capture the gas, turn it into a liquid, transport it through a network of pipelines, and pump it into the ground, intending for it to stay buried forever.

From an industrial perspective, carbon sequestration seems like a winning strategy. If it succeeded in reducing carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, it would allow coal and oil firms to retain and even expand their market share in the energy business throughout the 21st century, eliminating the need for substantial innovation.

Carbon sequestration would also greatly reduce the incentive for Congress to invest in renewable energy, which competes with coal and oil. Furthermore, carbon sequestration might deflect the accusation that the coal and oil corporations bear responsibility, and perhaps even legal liability, for the major consequences of global warming - more and bigger hurricanes, droughts, floods, and fires, for example.

Finally, if the carbon sequestration plan were to fail, with grievous consequences for human civilization, failure would occur decades or centuries into the future when the current generation of decisionmakers, researchers, philanthropists, and environmental advocates could no longer be held accountable.

For all these reasons, coal, oil, mining, and automobile corporations, plus electric utilities, are eager to get carbon sequestration going.

To accomplish their goal, the coal and oil firms are being helped by researchers at Princeton and Stanford universities, and by the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, which is underwriting a campaign by environmental advocates on behalf of industry's plan.

Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, the Izaak Walton League, the Clean Air Task Force, the Michigan Environmental Council, and others have received substantial grants to advocate for carbon sequestration.

Finally, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen Johnson recently endorsed industry's plan. All the pieces are now in place and an aggressive campaign is under way to persuade state and federal legislators to endorse large-scale carbon sequestration.

What's at stake?

After trillions of tons of carbon dioxide have been buried in the deep earth, if even a tiny proportion of it leaks back out into the atmosphere, the planet could heat rapidly and civilization as we know it could be disrupted.

Quite plausibly the surface of the Earth could become uninhabitable for humans. Thus, one way or another, the future of humanity is at stake in the decision whether to endorse carbon sequestration or to develop the many renewable energy technologies that are available to eliminate our dependence on carbon-based fuels.

Major benefits for the coal industry

To one degree or another, carbon sequestration will benefit all of the industries involved, allowing them to continue business as usual, removing the need for substantial innovation, and reducing competition from renewable fuels. However, it is the coal industry that will benefit the most. One could argue that, without carbon sequestration, the coal industry itself cannot survive.

Once large-scale carbon sequestration has begun, the coal industry will be free to unleash an enormous new enterprise turning coal into liquid fuels.

The technology for coal-to-liquids, or CTL, was fully developed decades ago. CTL was devised by German chemists in the 1920s, and the Nazis could not have pursued World War II without it.
A front loader piles coal at Niagara Mohawk's Dunkirk steam station in New York. (Photo by David Parsons courtesy NREL)

Unfortunately, coal-to-liquids is an exceptionally dirty technology that produces twice as much carbon dioxide per gallon of fuel, compared to petroleum. Carbon sequestration would bury that extra carbon dioxide in the ground, thus solving the coal industry's biggest problem, making coal-to-liquids feasible, and assuring a future for the coal industry itself.

You have, perhaps, heard the phrase clean coal. This contradictory term was coined by carbon sequestration advocates as a public relations ploy. In clean coal, the word clean is narrowly defined to mean coal that contributes less carbon to the atmosphere in the short term, compared to typical coal combustion.

In actual fact there is nothing clean about clean coal. Even if large-scale carbon sequestration begins, the mining and burning of clean coal will continue to destroy hundreds of mountains in Appalachia, and will continue to pollute the Midwestern and Eastern states with millions of tons of deadly fine and ultrafine particles of soot, plus nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, mercury, dioxins, radioactive particles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and so on.

Large tonnages of coal bottom ash will still be buried each year in shallow pits overlying aquifers, creating a perpetual and growing threat to drinking water supplies. In the Midwest and West, large tracts of land, and large amounts of scarce water, would still be contaminated or otherwise made unavailable for alternative uses.

In sum, clean coal is an advertising slogan without substance. Furthermore, if even a small proportion of the sequestered carbon from clean coal ever leaks out of the ground, the planet could experience runaway global warming.

The danger of tiny leaks

It is important to distinguish between carbon dioxide and carbon itself. Carbon is an element, one of the 92 naturally-occurring building blocks of the universe.

Carbon dioxide is a chemical compound made up of one carbon atom attached to two oxygen atoms - CO2. By weight, carbon dioxide is 27 percent carbon; in other words, one ton of elemental carbon will create 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas thought to be contributing to global warming.

As humans burn fuels containing carbon such as coal, oil and natural gas - carbon in the fuel combines with oxygen in the air to create CO2. In the air, CO2 acts like the glass roof on a greenhouse - it lets in sunlight, which is converted into heat energy as it strikes the Earth. When the heat energy radiates back into the sky, CO2 in the atmosphere acts like a mirror, reflecting heat back down to earth, warming the planet just as a glass roof warms a greenhouse. Global warming from this greenhouse effect was first described by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896.

Before the industrial revolution, there were 580 billion tonnes of carbon in Earth's atmosphere. Today there are 750 billion tonnes - an increase of 170 billion tonnes, or 29 percent, since about 1750.

Because humans burn roughly two percent more coal, oil and natural gas each year - thus doubling total use every 35 years - the carbon buildup in the atmosphere is accelerating. Presently humans are emitting about eight billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year, not all of which is retained there.

Unfortunately, emissions of eight billion tonnes per year are sufficient to worsen a global warming problem.

The amount of carbon held in underground supplies of coal, oil and natural gas is very large. By a conservative estimate, worldwide there are 3,510 billion tonnes of carbon remaining underground in coal; 230 billion tonnes of carbon in oil; and another 140 billion tonnes of carbon in natural gas plus 250 billion tonnes in peat, for a total of 4,130 billion tonnes of carbon held in fossil fuels globally.

If 25 percent of this were burned and the carbon sequestered, leakage of only 0.8 percentof the total per year would exceed the current annual human contribution to atmospheric carbon (eight billion tonnes).

And of course the oil and coal companies plan to burn far more than 25 percent of what remains in the ground. Their goal is to burn 100 percent of it.

If they managed to burn 75 percent of remaining fuels, then annual leakage of 0.26 percent of the total would exceed the current eight billion tonne annual human contribution to atmospheric carbon. This could eventually lead to runaway global warming, plausibly rendering the Earth uninhabitable for humans.

It is now widely believed that humans must cut their carbon emissions 80 percent by the year 2050 to avert runaway global warming. Actually, some now calculate that more than an 80 percentcut is needed - but for the sake of argument, let's accept the lower 80 percent estimate at face value.

An 80 percent reduction from eight billion tonnes would allow humans to emit only 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon annually to avert runaway global warming.

If we accept this estimate of the carbon reduction needed - cutting 80 percentfrom current levels - then the allowable leakage must be reduced accordingly:
# if 25 percentof remaining fossil carbon is sequestered, any leakage above 0.16 percent (about one-sixth of one percent) of the total per year could eventually result in runaway global warming;

# if 75 percent of remaining fossil carbon is sequestered, then leakage greater than 0.05 percent (one-twentieth of one percent) of the total per year could eventually produce runaway global warming.

Can humans bury several trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the ground with complete confidence that 0.05 percent of it will not leak out each year? Never leak out? The leakage could begin at any time in the far distant future because the danger would lie buried forever, waiting to escape, a perpetual threat.

The short-term secondary effects of a carbon sequestration program are also worth considering.

Once large-scale carbon sequestration begins, it will be exceedingly difficult to stop. As soon as sequestration begins, the coal and oil corporations, and the environmental groups and universities advocating on their behalf, will assert that "carbon sequestration has been successfully demonstrated."

Indeed, the environmental advocates are making such claims already, based on a very short history of pumping small amounts of carbon dioxide into oil wells to force more oil to the surface.
University of Texas geologists had workers drill a well more than 5,700 feet underground in which to inject carbon dioxide. (Photo courtesy U. Texas)

Thirty-five million tons of CO2 are being pumped into depleted oil wells in Texas each year, to force oil to the surface. Thirty-five million is 0.00035 percent of ten trillion. Scaling up a 35 megaton operation by a factor of 285,000 is not a trivial problem but this is not mentioned by industry's advocates who are trying to persuade legislators to endorse large-scale carbon sequestration.

How can anyone "demonstrate" that leakage will never occur in the future? Such a demonstration cannot be made.

Furthermore, once the U.S. government begins to repeat the environmentalists' false claim that carbon sequestration has been "successfully demonstrated," why would China not adopt it? And India, countries in Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union - why wouldn't they adopt it? If we claim a right to threaten the future of humanity, don't others have an equal right to assert such a claim?

But can other countries devote the same resources we can devote to siting, engineering and geologic studies? Will they all be able to monitor for leaks far into the future, essentially forever?

For that matter, will the U.S. have that capability? Humans have no experience creating institutions with a duty of perpetual vigilance.

If the carbon sequestration advocates can get their program started, it seems likely that Congress will declare the global warming problem solved and carbon sequestration will be employed until all the recoverable fossil fuels in the ground have been used up.

If carbon sequestration advocates can get their program going, the U.S. will have little further incentive to invest in renewable sources of energy - and so we stand to lose a unique opportunity to rebuild the U.S. economy on a sustainable basis and revive America's standing as an industrial leader in the world.

Carbon sequestration, once it gets started, will allow 19th century energy technologies to dominate the U.S. throughout most of the 21st century.

In sum, to evade liability, to relieve pressure for innovation, to stifle competition, and to make a great deal of money, the proponents of carbon sequestration are betting the future of humans on an untestable technology - permanent underground storage - an act of hubris unparalleled in the annals of our species.

Minds already made up

But, you may ask, "Doesn't the U.S. have the strongest environmental protection laws in the world? Surely a vigilant Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, will ask hard questions, and protect us from the bias of industry's hired experts?"

Last month EPA chief Stephen Johnson announced that EPA "will" issue regulations covering carbon sequestration. However, as he was announcing EPA's intention, Mr. Johnson issued a ringing endorsement of carbon sequestration as the silver bullet to fix the nation's environmental and economic problems.

"By harnessing the power of geological sequestration technology, we are entering a new age of clean energy where we can be both good stewards of the Earth, and good stewards of the American economy," Mr. Johnson said

Clearly, Mr. Johnson's mind is already made up.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, which earned its reputation as a shadow government by watchdogging EPA, now shares EPA's giddy optimism toward carbon sequestration. In a letter to a California legislator, NRDC's George Peridas asserts that carbon sequestration can be "perfectly safe."

And NRDC lawyer David Hawkins was quoted recently saying carbon sequestration can be carried out with "very very small risks."

NRDC has a $437,500 grant from the Joyce Foundation to promote carbon sequestration on industry's behalf.

Clearly, these "experts" have their minds made up. But many common sense questions remain:
# Given that there are many good alternatives, why would humans accept even a "very very small" risk of making their only home uninhabitable?

# And, given that the stakes are exceptionally high, shouldn't we approach this with a little humility and ask, "What if the experts are wrong? What if they are fallible and haven't thought of everything?

# What if their understanding is imperfect?" After all, geology has never been a predictive science, and humans have no experience burying lethal hazards in the ground expecting them to remain there in perpetuity.

# Since everyone alive today - and all their children and their children's children far into the future - could be affected, shouldn't we have a vigorous international debate on the wisdom of carbon sequestration versus alternative ways of powering human economies? Don't we have an obligation to develop a very broad international consensus before proceeding - especially among the nations most likely to be harmed if carbon sequestration fails?

# And finally, given the exceedingly high stakes, the irreversible nature of carbon sequestration, and the substantial and irreducible uncertainties involved, isn't this a decision that cries out for application of the precautionary principle?

{Peter Montague is director of Environmental Research Foundation in New Brunswick, N.J., and editor of two ERF newsletters, Rachel's Environment & Health News, which is available free in English and Spanish, and Rachel's Precaution Reporter which is available free in English. This article of opinion was originally published in Rachel's Environment & Health News.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.

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