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.

1 comment:

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