The dirty truth

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
February 20, 2009

During President Barack Obama’s visit to Canada this week, he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to spend billions developing technologies that would capture carbon and then store it underground.

Carbon capture and storage, as these schemes are known, is misguided environmentally, economically, and in the long term, politically too. Carbon capture has only one virtue: It solves short-term political problems for both leaders.

Harper has an overarching aim in funding carbon capture – the continuing development of the Alberta tar sands. Environmentalists castigate oil from tar sands as “dirty oil” for one reason above all: Tar sands oil generates more carbon dioxide than does oil from conventional sources. With carbon capture technology promising to counter much of the greenhouse gas associated with tar sands development, Harper can neutralize the main opposition to more tar sands projects.As a bonus, he will be fulfilling a campaign promise to address global warming.

Obama has two aims in funding carbon capture. For one thing, he needs oil from Canada’s tar sands to fulfill his campaign promise of weaning the U.S. off Middle-Eastern oil; for another, as this week’s U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue makes clear, he wants to exploit America’s vast coal reserves, both for their economic benefits and to promote U.S. energy independence, another campaign promise.

Carbon capture and storage, however, is not as green as it seems – underground burial of carbon dioxide presents immense new risks to society. If the carbon dioxide is stored in deep ocean masses, as sometimes proposed, environmentalists fear that ocean acidification could devastate marine eco-systems. If the carbon dioxide is stored in geologic formations near fossil fuel plants, as is more commonly proposed, the harmful effects would directly affect human life: Research at Columbia University by one of the world’s leading geohazard scientists ranks carbon storage as one of the five top coming causes of man-induced earthquakes, a prediction all the more scary because the earthquakes would tend to occur near the fossil fuel plants, and population centres. In another potential danger, some fret about the consequences of an accidental release of carbon dioxide from underground storage facilities. In Cameroon in 1986, 1,800 people died after an unexplained release of carbon dioxide from beneath Lake Nyos, which has deep stores of carbon dioxide beneath its bottom.

Apart from these unknown future risks of stuffing carbon dioxide underground, carbon capture technologies are chock-a-block with known problems, all stemming from the fact that these technologies are, in the parlance of environmentalists, energy pigs. As one example, a typical coal plant employing carbon capture technology requires between 24% and 50% more energy for every kilowatt-hour produced.

At this level of resource gluttony, the world’s store of non-renewable fossil fuels would be consumed at a fast clip wherever carbon capture technology was applied. Worse, other pollutants that environmentalists have long fought would also increase. The “clean coal” plants that President Obama touts would produce one-third more in nitrous oxides, a major contributor to smog. Likewise, carbon capture technology applied to tar sands plants would mean that additional tar sands plants would need to be developed just to run the tar sands carbon capture facilities.

Ironically, carbon capture technology would not only worsen air quality and more rapidly scar the tar sands landscape, it may also harm the global environment if it is successful in its goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth and leads to a greening of the planet. In fact, satellite measurements now show the planet to be the greenest in decades. Little wonder that, in surveys of scientists, the great majority view carbon dioxide as a beneficial gas that’s indispensable to plant growth, and insignificant to any deleterious global warming.

To add to the irony, even if carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that plays a significant role in warming the planet, there may be good reason to encourage its release into the atmosphere. A decade ago, the planet stopped warming and a year ago, global temperatures began to decline markedly. If, as many scientists now speculate, Earth could be entering a new Little Ice Age, carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases could mitigate the hardship that would come with a cooling planet.

The environmental drawbacks in carbon capture also spell economic trouble. The complexity of the technology, and its energy inefficiency, translate into high prices. Estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show customers should be prepared to pay as much as 50% to 70% more for their power. With cost penalties on that scale, industries will leave carbon capture jurisdictions for less punitive climes, and captive consumers will rebel.

At heart, what politicians and the public most want is clean energy and a clean environment. Rather than sinking billions into carbon capture schemes likely to do nothing but damage the environment and the economy, Obama and Harper should target true environmental hazards such as the mercury, NOX and SOX in coal, the air and water emissions associated with tar sands. And they should come clean with the public over carbon dioxide, and admit that too little worrisome is known about its risks to start burying it, and too much worrisome is known about the risks of burying it.

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