Friday, August 8, 2008

Carbon Sequestration: A High Tech Hail Mary

Even with the price of gas beginning to drop from historic highs (a gallon of unleaded regular is $3.89 this week outside Philly), energy remains one of the top stories of the summer. In fact, it’s astonishing that a price below four bucks suddenly seems reasonable.

And with Big Oil openly acknowledging that the age of Black Gold is ending (BP, after all, reminds us its initials now stand for Beyond Petroleum), entrenched fossil fuel interests are doing whatever they can to grab the last few straws—drill in the Arctic Circle, drill offshore, drill anywhere…

While oil reserves are dwindling, everyone acknowledges there are massive coal seams across the United States. To get us to energy independence, Big Coal is
working overtime to convince us that coal is, or can be, clean (unlike the stacks pictured here). There are aggressive advertising campaigns on TV polishing coal’s image, and lots of high-tech research going on.

This summer,
the EPA has announced a high-tech solution to global warming—it has authorized a new class of deep-injection wells for pumping highly pressurized, liquified carbon dioxide for permanent storage.

In other words, keep burning coal, the dirtiest of fuels, but don’t worry about global warming: just capture the CO2, inject it into wells, and store it there in perpetuity.

Forever is a long time.

Coal executives crow that their power plants can thus become carbon neutral: they’ll sequester 90% of the emissions and plant trees to offset the final 10%, the hardest part to capture.

At face value, this sounds good, and EPA says “sequestration will play a major role in reducing CO2 emissions.” But a
growing chorus of voices is reminding us of some of the downsides of sequestration.

First, whatever formations the highly pressurized, very cold, liquefied carbon dioxide is injected into have to be highly stable—imagine injecting it into wells here, only to have it leak out of fissures in the rock over there, defeating the purpose at great price to both economy and ecology.

Then, creating the high-pressure injectable fluid is itself an energy-intensive project; the sequestration plants might increase the plant’s energy needs by as much as 40%. And the sequestration plants themselves create smog and burn oil in injecting the gas.

Third, one doesn’t sequester the CO2 in the rock right below the power plant. Pipelines must be built to bring the liquefied stuff to the injection point hundreds of miles away.

So we have a high-tech shell game of moving carbon dioxide around at great expense—so that coal remains in play as an energy source.

Big Coal sees that the clock ticking; time is running out.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times reminds us we’re looking for 21st century solutions, and coal is a 19th century fuel. Coal is akin to whale oil—yes, we can burn it, but at what cost?

As one studies the entire energy picture, sequestration seems a Hail Mary pass the coal hopes will buy it more time.

But it’s not the future. The future is clean and green, and we need to begin moving there far more rapidly than we currently are.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Knot of a Conservation Issue

Scientists have long noted that we are in a horrific extinction event with hundreds of species vanishing daily. Daily. Trouble is, that number is based on mathematical models, and is, for many, just a number, a clinically cold number.

But consider the red knot pictured here—extinction with a face. The knot is a member of the sandpiper clan, a shorebird with one of the longest migration routes on Earth, flying from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle and back, almost 20,000 miles annually.

And it is vanishing before our very eyes. From 100,000 birds in the 1980s, scientists estimated only 17,200 were left in 2006. The bird was featured in a recent PBS Nature episode, titled, appropriately, “Crash.”

We are eyewitness to extinction—scientists worry the knot may vanish by 2010, two years away.

And what a loss. In migrating north from Argentina, knots gather on the coast of Brazil, then leap into the Atlantic Ocean, flying for several days without landing until they pull up on the Delaware Bay, exhausted, ravenously hungry, bodies depleted. But a miracle happens.

At just this same time, horseshoe crabs haul themselves up onto these same bay beaches, laying what was once a superabundance of green BB-sized eggs in the sand, thousands of crabs laying quadrillions of fat-rich eggs.

In an elegant confluence of events, the knots arrive just as the crabs are laying, and engorge themselves on crab eggs, doubling their body weight in a very short time, preparing themselves for their great leap forward—to the Arctic Circle, for mating and laying their own eggs.

Trouble is, the horseshoes crabs are themselves valuable, used as bait for catching conch and eel, and crab fishermen have been aggressive in protecting the horseshoe crab fishery.

As crab populations themselves crashed in past years, knot populations plummeted. There has been tons of attention focused on knots and crabs recently, and while crab populations seem to be rebounding from new rules and changed management, some say they rebounding from historically low levels, and knots are leaving for the Arctic Circle without the fat reserves they need.

And are simply not surviving the trip.

But the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is set to rule on the 2009 Delaware Bay crab harvest, the latest round in a fierce tug of war between the competing interests of commerce and conservation, and a moratorium is not on the table. More likely, they will allow a male-only delayed catch, but conservationists remind us that crabs need multiple male partners to fertilize all their eggs (the photo here shows a female surrounded by male suitors, all likely contributing sperm to the externally fertilized eggs). And crabs don’t become egg layers until the age of 10—lots of young crabs in the water now may not help the knot.

Conservation vs. commerce. Sound familiar? Whenever experts declare there should be a balance between the two interests, that usually means conservation loses.

The red knot is vanishing, right in front of us. And for what?

Eel bait.

Maya Van Rossum, the Delaware Bay's Riverkeeper, says "the whole world is watching" what happens here. That would be great—I fear not enough of the world is watching, and the knot is slipping through our fingers.

It bears repeating: for eel bait.