Month 7, Day 26: Once We Make Nanobots That Eat CO2 and Shit Diamonds, Our Problems Will Be Solved!

A CCS project in Billings, Montana has been shut down because of lack of funds. The LA Times ran the AP version of this fairly minor story, and since I was tired of decrying our failure to act on a climate bill, I thought I’d send them a little reality check.

It speaks volumes that a process that is “considered key for addressing climate change” rests on “a largely unproven concept.” The problems involved in economical carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) from burning coal are immense, and the technology is still in its infancy. It’s important to fund research and development in CCS, because it may lead to methods of removing carbon dioxide not only from coal plants, but from our atmosphere itself, where the greenhouse gas has built to dangerous levels. But it is both bizarre and tragic that we consider a yet-to-be-developed technology as an integral element of our response to an immediate crisis; if your house is on fire, you don’t have time for the fire department to invent a new kind of pump. There is an excellent way to keep the carbon in coal from entering the atmosphere: leave it in the ground. We Americans must radically transform our consumption habits, and recognize that our nationality conveys no inherent right to waste the Earth’s resources, further accelerating the climate crisis.

Warren Senders

Month 4, Day 28: You Can’t Keep a Bad Gas Down

Posts like this one at DK allow me to sound like an expert. I am an expert — at sounding like an expert. If the US Government were to develop policies about Hindustani music, I’d be speaking from a genuine base of experience…but here? I’m just passing along what I read, rephrased and polished.

To the Secretary of Energy, with a cc to President Obama:

Dear Secretary Chu,

I was surprised and disappointed when you made public statements last year touting the possibility of “clean coal” as part of our nation’s energy strategy; your previous remarks characterizing coal as a “nightmare” were obviously unacceptable to the coal industry’s representatives, and it must have been an unpleasant experience having to sacrifice scientific integrity for the sake of political expediency.

A recent paper published in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering significantly strengthens the case against carbon sequestration. Christine Ehlig-Economides and Michael Economides carried out simulation studies indicating that a closed underground reservoir may not be able to hold even 1% of its volume in injected carbon dioxide (CO2). They write:

“Published reports on the potential for sequestration fail to address the necessity of storing CO2 in a closed system. Our calculations suggest that the volume of liquid or supercritical CO2 to be disposed cannot exceed more than about 1% of pore space. This will require from 5 to 20 times more underground reservoir volume than has been envisioned by many, and it renders geologic sequestration of CO2 a profoundly non-feasible option for the management of CO2 emissions.

The authors further discuss Sleipner, a CCS project in the North Sea, noting that it has achieved only a fraction of the CO2 injection volumes required for a single 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant, and further more has experienced “significant leakage to overlying layers.” That is to say, the North Sea project isn’t holding what its proponents said it would hold — and it’s leaking.

Of course, CO2 leakage kind of defeats the purpose of carbon sequestration, doesn’t it?

But let’s say we could solve the leakage problem. Each year, a single coal plant makes about 3 million tonnes of CO2. Three decades adds up to ninety million tonnes, which, stored underground at 1,000 psi, would require an aquifer just slightly smaller than Rhode Island. The United States is a big country, but I don’t feel sanguine about finding six hundred or so storage locations of that size. Do you?

Ehlig-Economides and Economides conclude their paper by stating that geological CO2 sequestration is “…not a practical means to provide any substantive reduction in CO2 emissions, although it has been repeatedly presented as such by others.”

Can we please stop pretending that “clean coal” is likely to happen anytime soon? I strongly favor R&D funding of carbon sequestration technologies for the simple reason that research in this area is reasonably likely to turn up other approaches that may be useful in our fight against potentially devastating effects of high levels of atmospheric CO2. But it is increasingly obvious that the only way to safely sequester the carbon in coal is the simplest: don’t burn it.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders