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Enviro fad with an asterisk

The environmentalists are, as you know, fearful that carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants will change the atmosphere in such a way as to heat up the Earth.  Since power plants produce more CO2 than just about any other man-made source, a proposal to remedy this is called “carbon capture and sequestration,” or CCS.  The idea is to catch some or all of the CO2 coming from a power plant and pump it deep into the ground under high pressure.

The idea has some appeal because it would help sidestep the radicals’ open war on the coal industry.  If no CO2 went into the air, the whole issue should be moot.  I have three concerns about CCS.  First, it’s very expensive.  Second, radicals would just change their attack to some other aspect about coal such as the fact that you have to dig it up.  Third, there’s a danger that perhaps hasn’t been fully explored.

CCS doesn’t come cheap.  The flue gas from burning coal has to be collected, cooled, particulates removed, then the gasses compressed and transported to a site geologically suitable for injection into the ground, and finally injection wells drilled where the gas can be put into the ground under high pressure and somehow sealed in there. This takes a lot of equipment, all of which costs money to build and operate and none of which produces energy. Everything about this drives up the cost of the electricity.

The second problem with CCS is that, despite its enormous expense, it will do nothing to restrain energy Luddites.  Opponents of the coal industry oppose everything about it from the way it’s mined and how it’s burned to the exhaust products and final disposal of ash.  If a great magician suddenly found a way to burn coal so that it gives off nothing at all, they would still find ways to obstruct its use.

The third problem with CCS may be the most significant in terms of genuine concern for public safety.  CO2 is normally a trace gas in the atmosphere.  But when it’s concentrated into one place, seriously bad things can happen.  For example, the Lake Nyos disaster in 1986 in the African nation of Cameroon resulted in the deaths of about 1700 people.  Lake Nyos is a lake formed in a volcanic crater.  The volcano continues to emit CO2 into the water, but because of the great depth of the lake, the CO2 dissolves into the water rather than bubbling to the surface.  In 1986, a geological event resulted in the deep waters being roiled to the surface whereupon huge quantities of CO2 gas suddenly came out of solution and formed a suffocating cloud.  CO2 is heavier than air, so the invisible cloud rolled down the mountainside suffocating everyone in its path, killing cattle and even snuffing out campfires.

There are places in the United States where naturally occurring CO2 vents produce toxic effects, though none nearly so dramatic as the Lake Nyos event. One hiker in the Mammoth Mountain area is thought to have been asphyxiated in a CO2 blanket.

One concern about CCS is that a CO2 injection well might experience a mechanical failure that could allow a large, localized release of CO2 gas.  The life of a coal-fired plant can be sixty years or more, so imagine a site where CO2 ground injection has been taking place for that long, followed by a failure resulting in the rapid release of much of the gas.  Stopping the release could be a dangerous and difficult engineering challenge as tough as British Petroleum’s fight with its runaway Macondo well.

New technologies are always subject to the three demons afflicting visionary scientists and engineers: Fear mongering, cost overruns, and lawsuits.  The Edwardsport plant being built by the Duke Energy corporation is rich with all three to the point that the CCS aspect of the plant has been abandoned and the entire project is in peril.

A step toward solving this problem is to realistically assess what motivates the opposition.  The most powerful enemies of American-produced energy are moved not by rational concerns for the environment but by a reflexive and habitual fear of industrial development.  Over time, this has become a permanent piece of the American political landscape as radical environmentalists have staked out a small but significant piece of turf within the Democrat party.  They view their mission as obstructing everything, new drilling, new mining, new technology, new refineries, even new wind farms and solar panel arrays.

People with abiding fears of large scale industrial technology cannot have their fears relieved by adding layers of large-scale industrial technology as safety measures.  Likewise, seeking to exploit the conflict between producers and naysayers are not interested in a genuine solution.  This is why CCS technology may well be politically doomed even if it works perfectly.

The more rational segments of the public must become acquainted with the fact that developing and using any large scale technology will unavoidably result in loss of life and changes to the environment.  This is no less true of giant factories where they build the latest in cell phone technology as it is of space travel or deep water oil extraction.  If people are involved on a massive scale, the amounts of energy and resources involved means that when mistakes happen, and they will, lives will be lost.

The task for industry and policy makers, therefore, is to manage the risk to reasonable levels, recognizing that elimination of risk is seldom possible.  CCS, however, represents one of those rare opportunities when a risk actually can be eliminated entirely — simply by not adopting the technology.  Coal can be burned cleanly and with a minimum of environmental impact and without using CCS.  All that needs to be done is to move governmental obstruction and legal threats aside, and the power industry will do the rest.

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