27 february 2009

Are we digging ourselves into a hole with carbon capture?

David Suzuki Foundation, 27 February 2009

February 27, 2009 - The Alberta and federal governments are pumping billions of dollars into carbon capture and storage as part of their climate change plans. U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minster Stephen Harper also discussed this largely untested technology during the president’s recent visit to Ottawa. But is it a good strategy? Think of what that money could do if it were invested in energy conservation and renewable energy instead of prolonging our addiction to dirty and finite fossil fuels, especially from the tar sands.

What is CCS? People in the oil industry found that as they drained oil from wells, they could pump CO2 back in to increase the yield. And the CO2 appeared to stay in the ground. But we have no idea what happens to this gas. Does it form a bubble under a big rock? Is it chemically bonded to its surrounding matrix? How long will it stay down there? We don’t know. We air-breathing terrestrial beings seem to have the attitude of “out of sight, out of mind,” and so we dump our garbage into the oceans or the ground or the atmosphere, as if that were a solution.

I can’t overemphasize the degree of our ignorance. Until a few years ago, scientists assumed no life existed below bedrock, but miners kept reporting that bits drilled far deeper into the ground came back contaminated. Researchers later discovered bizarre forms of life almost three kilometres below the surface. The organisms are bacteria, which in some cases are embedded in rock, eking out an existence scrounging for water, energy, and nutrition. Some are thought to divide only once in a thousand years! When these organisms are brought to the surface, their DNA is unlike anything we know about bacteria aboveground. Biologists have had to invent whole new phyla to describe them.

The layer of life on Earth’s surface is very thin, but these single-celled organisms go down kilometres. Now, scientists believe that protoplasm living underground are more abundant than all of the elephants, trees, whales, fish, and other life above! We have no idea how important these organisms are to the subsurface web of life. Do they play a role in movement of water and nutrients, of energy from the magma? We have no idea.

I met Princeton University’s Tullis Onstott, a geologist and expert on these organisms, at a lecture I gave at Princeton last year. I told him of the plans to pump millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the ground for CCS. “What effect will that have?” I asked. “I have no idea, but the methanogens should love it,” he replied. “What are they?” I asked. “They absorb carbon dioxide and make methane,” he responded. Methane is 22 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide! So, we could be pumping a greenhouse gas into the ground and ending up with a super-greenhouse gas instead. Has anyone even considered this possibility?

Remember that Paul Mueller won a Nobel Prize in 1948 for his discovery in 1939 that DDT kills insects. Years after we started using it on a massive scale around the world, we learned that DDT is “biomagnified” up the food chain, harming birds, fish, and human beings. When we began to use chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, in spray cans, most people didn’t even know there was an ozone layer, let alone that chlorine-free radicals from CFCs destroy ozone. And mark my words, we have no idea what genetically engineered organisms or nanotechnology will do. But if we humans are good at anything, it’s thinking we’ve got a terrific idea and going for it without acknowledging the potential consequences or our own ignorance.

CCS is a simple-minded idea based on a first impression. You’d think we would have learned from the past that we shouldn’t rush to apply new technologies before we know what the long-term effects will be. Carbon capture and storage may be worth studying, but the technology’s potential should not be used as an excuse for the oil and coal industries to avoid reducing their emissions and investing in renewable energy. After all, we know that energy conservation and renewable energy will yield immediate effects of a cleaner environment. We don’t know what carbon capture and storage will cost, when it will be commercially viable, or what it will do, other than perhaps to give us a way to keep relying on finite and polluting sources of energy.

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