We know that “four out of five dentists” agree that CO2 tops the list of global warming causes and that the leading culprit is, well, us. Proponents of “clean coal” trumpet carbon capture and sequestration as a panacea; but it may be this line of thinking that has detractors and environmentalists up in arms. CO2 storage and sequestration is still an emerging technology and is still hyped by governments and industry stakeholders as the big solution. But, there are several notable and immediate obstacles to overcome before we can help the environment and save the proverbial whales.
With CO2 storage, you need what some say are a perfect set of geological criteria: You need a limestone bed or some other natural material that will serve as a wall; you need the space to be large enough to make the holding area practical; and you need enough of these spaces around the world to hold all the CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. Yes, there are studies looking at so-called deep saline aquifers, which supporters say hold vast potential and could serve as a good tool for mitigation.
But as we look, CO2 continues to rise up into the atmosphere. If this option is to be taken seriously, we must quickly identify and use these aquifers, compatible carbon sinks, depleted oilfields or other places capable of permanently and safely housing large volumes of CO2. At an off shore undersea aquifer off Norway, for example, Statoil buries carbon dioxide extracted from natural gas to reduce its tax liability with the Norwegian government. But offshore storage, while effective, comes at a heavy cost both in terms of capital and energy efficiency. Last year, I spoke with an executive in Rotterdam from Royal Dutch Shell who told me their northern European operations generate 100 million tons of CO2 yearly.
But all this is likely just academic for now. Does the planet actually have enough space to store all this CO2? According to CO2now.org, a non-profit organization advocating the reduction of greenhouse gases, 9.28 billion metric tons of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere by fossil fuel sources, cement plants and land use-change activities worldwide in 2009. But we’re not innocent either. The average American household spews 35 tons of CO2 into the air every year. Economic data suggests that those figures aren’t going down.
“Coal is now the largest fossil-fuel source of CO2 emissions. About 92% of the growth in coal emissions for the period 2007-2009 resulted from increased coal use in China and India. If economic growth proceeds as expected, global fossil fuel emissions are projected to increase by more than 3% in 2010,” according to the report.
How can science help? Perhaps with increased government support and public/private relationship brokering. Any working energy policy must be executed across platforms to be effective. Companies, R&D firms and academia should be encouraged to share new, tested and available technologies in areas such as flue gas cleanup, hydrogen generation and renewable energy tools, as well as waste-to-energy solutions in landfill gas to methane generation.
CO2 capture will certainly have its place in the new energy economy. But cooperation across industries (and borders) is the only answer and is likely the only way to save those whales.