Practical CO2 Solution - Store It Underground
    By Hank Campbell | March 21st 2012 11:22 AM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    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)


    At this point, I don't think we need to even do anything about atm CO2 (.1C/decade is swamped by variability, and I have the measured data to prove it).

    But, I think it is reasonable to spend some money to see if there is a way to sequester CO2 if we learn that it is something we need to do.

    I also know we do need another source of energy, and I have no issue spending money on research looking for it, but the Gov has to stay out of picking business winners and losers by underwriting politically based loans. We already do enough of that in Gov agencies like NASA for instance.

    Oh, I forgot to add that there's also been a rash of earthquakes in Eastern Ohio/Western Pa, that are suspected to be from the high pressure used in fracking to extract Nat Gas......
    Never is a long time.
    If fracking could cause earthquakes, it would have been happening since 1950. I hope you are not contending a few suspect studies making a flawed correlation is valid but all of climate science is not.
    I did say "suspected" (as I look for a rock to crawl under).

    GCM's and digging around in large data sets are much closer to my wheelhouse though.
    Never is a long time.
    Geothermal fracking caused a series of minor earthquakes in the swiss city of Basel around january 2007, after what the geothermal project responsible for them was abandoned (while these where around 3.2 - 3.5 on the Richter scale, the "memory" of the major earthquake that destroyed the city in the 14th century was dissuasive).

    Supposedly it 'causes' headaches in people too, even though they got headaches long before there was fracking.  Basically, it is a cultural boogeyman and people are latching onto it.   Next, fracking will be blamed for autism.
    Whatever you say. But you'd have a hard time defending a different conclusion here. The drillers warned they expected tremors, only not that strong. The police attributed it to them. Actually they were dozens of quakes, but only 3 or 4 strong enough to be noticed. There was an official inquiry by the justice department. And given the motivation and investment for drilling 5 km down to get the heat, I don't think the project would have been dropped at that point if the evidence hadn't been convincing.

    I'm happy to change my mind once there is actual evidence beyond 'we had bad earthquake 700 years ago'.  Italians are putting geologists on trial for not successfully predicting an earthquake so going by a government investigation does not mean much. There are lots of places it is not safe to drill for lots of reasons - that was the case long before fracking - that does not mean all drilling is dangerous, which is the argument anti-science hippies against fracking use.
    Hank - have you seen the article about the solar power plant in Spain that supposedly produces solar energy year round, even in night? If so, what are your thoughts on that?

    There are lots of nifty ideas on making smarter solutions but there is losing money and then there is just impractical - I love the idea of turning carbon dioxide into fuel (using solar power, no less!) but it is a concept, not a reality, and solar will clearly some day be the answer, but it isn't here yet so we shouldn't subsidize companies implementing it.  Spain is the perfect test case: Like in the US, they spent $700,000 for each job green job created but since they did it longer we can now see the result; they lost 2.2 other jobs for each new green one, a real negative economically.  A non-government business would have hired 5 people for that money.  Bonus: I got to invoke Bastiat's 'broken window' economic fallacy in that article, which a numbers guy like you will appreciate.

    The downside to large-scale solar (using current technology) is also a practical one.  We would need sunny area equivalent to all of the roads in America to replace coal plants.  That's without the new power lines and lawsuits over those that are inevitable.

    Basic research should make solar a lot more efficient so home systems can work in many different areas and not just the places in California with 6 hours per day of sunshine for 320 days per year that activists extrapolate out to the whole country.