Climate change is a polarizing science policy debate the likes of which humankind has never witnessed before. Even President Obama's science advisor John Holdren never dreamed up this kind of doomsday scenario when he was writing books with the king of doomsday predictions, Paul Ehrlich. Women in the workforce, CFCs, acid rain, islands of garbage - nothing from past cultural debates compares to the scariness of rolling drought and melting glaciers. What to do? On one side we have people who insist a world where elites have energy and others do not must be implemented right now. The other side consists of people who believe that future magic science will solve the problem so we needn't worry - oddly, the former calls the latter anti-science but 'framing' is a rant for another time.
Reality won't usually interject itself into rabid ideology but maybe this one time someone will listen. While basic research solves the clean energy problem - and it will, just not by spending another $44 billion on Solyndra-type manufacturing subsidies and instead funding actual research - the world cannot shut down. Unless we bring on a new nuclear plant every day for the next 50 years, we're stuck with the CO2-emitting sources we have.
MIT researchers may have a solution and it's similar to what we do with nuclear waste - while the perfect solution comes around, you store the bad stuff. That way, the perfect is not the enemy of the good and fringe activists are not the only ones with electricity (they have to have it, or how else can they write about saving the planet?). Saline aquifers in the US can store a century’s worth of carbon dioxide emissions says Ruben Juanes, the ARCO Associate Professor in Energy Studies at MIT. Yeah, that's right, ARCO. See? Energy companies fund science (queue the shrill 'he must be unethical' hysteria).
Coal accounts for 40 percent of CO2 emissions, it is said - even Dr. James Hansen, the most famous global warming scientist, says if we had cleaner coal we could stop worrying about oil and electric cars because our problem would be solved - so while coal cannot go away (activists suddenly hate natural gas as much as they hate coal so that is no solution) maybe the CO2 coal plants produce can be removed.
The only sticky point. It may not be economical. Well, what is economical? Are we not told by one side that energy companies will cease to exist if they don't get tax credits? Are we not told by the other side that energy is not viable unless the government plays venture capitalist and picks winners and losers (winners being companies political donors are invested in) among 'clean' energy companies? Energy is a strategic resource, like food and taxpayers lose money on corn and milk and wheat every year. Like those, CO2 storage may not have to be profitable, it just can't be crazily overpriced.
Video: Lucy Lindsey, MIT
Let's hope profitability is not paramount, because there is no way to know if these deep saline aquifers (over half a mile below the surface, far below the freshwater sources used for human consumption and agriculture, so relax) can store a few years’ worth of emissions or instead thousands and that can't be determined without spending some money. They have no commercial value so no exploration has been done. And we can't even get solar farms online without years of lawsuits by environmentalists and nonsense about earthquakes, you think exploring a half mile below the surface will go unchallenged? These people protested over looking for oil in an area the size of a small airport near the North Pole, they are not agreeing to domestic analysis in the 48 contiguous states. There could be a Lost World down there and they would naturally be much more awesome than America.
The MIT researchers also acknowledged a practical issue most who have done non-research numerical modeling (i.e. the kind where things have to work and millions of dollars are at stake, not academia) recognize; the fluid dynamics of how concentrated CO2 will spread through complex underground formations is bordering on impossible to model without so many boundaries and conditions as to make results unusable. But that's a technology issue and those can be solved given enough time.
The important science issue, says co-author Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer, is that when liquefied carbon dioxide is dissolved in salty water, the resulting fluid is denser than either of the constituents, so it naturally sinks. It’s a slow process, but “once the carbon dioxide is dissolved, you’ve won the game.” The dense, heavy mixture would almost certainly never escape back to the atmosphere. That's a win.
Would 15-30% more cost be worth it? It's a policy discussion. In 2008, President Obama said gas was not expensive enough and now he says it is too expensive, even though it is the same cost. The American economy remains in the dumps for everyone except DJIA stockholders so another 30% might not make things any worse. The sticky point would be getting Congress and the President to actually use a carbon tax for researching solutions. You saw what they have done to Social Security for 70 years so the prospects for a pollution tax are not great either.
Citation: M. L. Szulczewski, C. W. MacMinn, H. J. Herzog and R. Juanes, 'Lifetime of carbon capture and storage as a climate-change mitigation technology', Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A., 109(14), doi:10.1073/pnas.1115347109 (2012)
Practical CO2 Solution - Store It Underground