What About Geoengineering, Part VI: Why Not Suck It Up?

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Near the end of the last post, “What . . . About Geoengineering, Part V,” I mentioned liming the ocean, a geoengineering scheme that would make the ocean more alkaline and thus able to absorb more carbon dioxide. One unfortunate (not to mention ironic) side effect of producing the alkalinizing agent, lime, is that the process generates copious quantities of carbon dioxide. But have no fear! Technology has supplied an answer in the form of carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. So before we move on, I think I should supply a succinct description of this drop-dead-from-boredom-if-you-have-to-read-about-it technology. Here’s one from the Global CCS Institute that, while uninspiring, is at least brief: “The [CCS] technology involves capturing CO2 produced by large industrial plants, compressing it for transportation and then injecting it deep into a rock formation at a carefully selected and safe site, where it is permanently stored.”[1]

So let’s see if I’ve got this straight. The big geoengineering idea, here, is to create a substance, lime, that we can dump into the ocean so that seawater can absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and then to bury all of the carbon dioxide that producing the lime creates at a site that will be safe for eternity.

Okay. Just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that such a place exists (chortle, chortle). The next question is: How would the carbon dioxide get to the storage site? Well, according to the plan, the gas would be transported via pipeline—miles and miles of pipeline.[2] Unfortunately, moving all that CO2 through long distances of pipe could be hazardous because, as news headlines periodically inform us, pipelines occasionally leak. . . . Which brings us to another problem with carbon capture and sequestration. You’ve heard people use the acronym NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), right? . . . Well, just in case you haven’t, NIMBY is the position most of us take when some entity that could affect our health, nerves, moral sensibilities, or property values announces plans to set up shop (or whatever) nearby. Even if we don’t oppose things like landfills, nuclear-waste dumps, strip clubs, NASCAR tracks, or other smelly, dangerous, raunchy, or noisy entities in principle, we don’t want to be forced to put up with them on a daily basis, so we fight when one of them tries to open up in our neighborhood.

NIMBY is a term that has been around for several decades and has been quite useful. As proposals for carbon-dioxide burial have become more prevalent, however, the need for a new acronym has arisen. So make way NIMBY because here comes NUMBY—which, as you might guess, is short for: Not Under My Back Yard.

In 2010, NUMBY protestors forced an electric utility to abandon plans for carbon sequestration at a site in the Altmark region of Germany. Local residents and environmental groups worried that underground leaks might contaminate groundwater. Even more, they feared being asphyxiated by CO2 due to a sudden, massive release from a pipeline fracture (possibly earthquake induced) or due to gas from an overlooked leak amassing in valleys.[3] The NUMBYists had reason to be concerned: Inhaling air with a carbon-dioxide concentration of ten percent or more can lead to unconsciousness or death.[4] (The normal carbon dioxide content of dry air is about 0.035 percent.) Had the residents of Altmark acceded to the utility’s plan, not only would they have had to live with the threat of gas leaks, so would all their descendants, henceforward. Perhaps the ethical implications of consigning a growing risk to people not yet born figured in their opposition to the proposed storage site. In any case, Altmark is not unique.[5] NUMBYism is a likely obstacle to carbon-capture-and-sequestration wherever it is proposed.

So maybe the plan for taking carbon dioxide out of the air by liming the ocean (and then sequestering the CO2 that results from producing the lime) has its faults. But no worries. Inquiring minds have offered alternative proposals for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Take for example, rock smashing and scattering. Professor Toshinori Kojima of Seikei University in Tokyo and three of his colleagues decided to examine the feasibility of pulverizing the alkaline rocks wollastonite and olivine to speed up the weatherization process after learning that the “weathering of alkaline rocks . . . played a role in the historical reduction in the atmospheric CO2 of this planet.” Their experiments led them to conclude: “CO2 absorption by rock weathering is one of the most promising measures for [the] CO2 problem.”[6] That was in 1997. Since then, the results of other crushed-rock studies have been less promising. Two German professors, Jens Hartmann and Stephan Kempe determined, for example, that if finely ground silicate rocks were “applied homogenously on all agricultural and forested areas of the world,” less than one percent of anthropogenic carbon-dioxide emissions would be sequestered. Moreover, applying the pulverized rock would be too expensive to be practical due to logistical issues. Worse still, the CO2 sequestered by the ground rock would probably “amount to only a fraction” of the CO2 that would be released during the spreading of the rock over all those fields and forests. Hartmann and Kempe concluded that stimulated weathering (that is, the spreading around of pulverized rocks) “would thus not be one of the key techniques to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentration.”[7]

No matter. Geoengineers have more rabbits and more hats. One idea, called “direct air capture,” would suck CO2 right out of the air by passing it through a scrubber, made of an array of fans, with “cleverly contrived surfaces along which an absorbing fluid flows.”[8] After scrubbing, the CO2 would be concentrated and thus easier to sequester underground. Cost estimates for removing a ton of carbon dioxide through direct air capture range from about $20 to $2,000.[9] Given that mankind’s combustion of fossil fuels currently puts about 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually, we would spend from $800 billion to $80 trillion to capture one year’s worth of carbon-dioxide emissions using direct air capture if we went on polluting at the current rate.[10]

So now, if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to repeat the question I asked at the end of the last post: Which of the following makes more sense to you: (a) deploying one of these (#?%&*!!) geoengineering schemes or (b) acting as individuals to lessen our greenhouse-gas emissions by reducing our consumption of resources and production of wastes?


 

[1] Global CCS Institute. “What is CCS?” http://www.globalccsinstitute.com/content/what-ccs

[2] Dooley, James J., Robert T. Dahowski, and Casie L. Davidson.  2009.  “Comparing Existing Pipeline Networks with the Potential Scale of Future U.S. CO2 Pipeline Networks.”  In Energy Procedia: Ninth International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies. Vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1595-1602.  London: Elsevier.

[3] Kanter, James. “Obstacles to Capturing Carbon Gas.” New York Times. July 31, 2011.

[4] Mallinger, Stephen. “Potential Carbon Dioxide (CO(2)) Asphyxiation Hazard When Filling Stationary Low Pressure CO(2) Supply Systems.” Occupational Safety and Health Administration. June 5, 1996. http://www.osha.gov/dts/hib/hib_data/hib19960605.html

[5] Kanter, James. “Obstacles to Capturing Carbon Gas.”

[6] Kojima, T., A. Nagamine, N. Ueno, and S. Uemiya. 1997. “Absorption and Fixation of Carbon Dioxide by Rock Weathering.” Energy Conversion and Management. Vol. 38, Supplement, pp. S461-S466.

[7] Hartmann, Jens, and Stephan Kempe. 2008. “What Is the Maximum Potential for CO2 Sequestration by ‘Stimulated’ Weathering on the Global Scale?” Naturwissenschaften. Vol. 95, no. 12, pp. 1159-1164. (Emphasis added.)

[8] “Geoengineering: Lift-off.” Economist. November 4, 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/17414216

[9] Sarewitz, Daniel, and Rober Pielke, Jr. “Learning to Live with Fossil Fuels.” The Atlantic. May 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/05/learning-to-live-with-fossil-fuels/309295/ (Accessed November 30, 2013.)

[10] International Energy Agency. “Global Carbon-Dioxide Emissions Increase by 1.0 Gt in 2011 to Record High.” May 24, 2012. http://www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/news/2012/may/name,27216,en.html (Accessed November 30, 2013.)

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