Carbon sequestration and the precautionary principle

Carbonsequestration and the precautionary principle

12 November 2007

published by

The following is an essay from Peter Montague, executive director of the EnvironmentalResearch Foundation.

In response to a relentless stream of bad news about global warming, acluster of major industries has formed a loose partnership with bigenvironmental groups, prestigious universities, philanthropic foundations, andthe U.S. federal government — all promoting a technical quick-fix for globalwarming called “carbon sequestration.”

“Carbon sequestration” is a plan to capture and bury as much as 10trillion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide deep in the ground, hoping it will staythere forever. (A ton is 2,000 pounds; a metric tonne is 2,200 pounds; tentrillion is 10,000,000,000,000.) Though the plan has not yet received anysubstantial publicity, it is very far along.

The purpose of the plan is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide enteringthe atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). Acarbon sequestration program would capture the gas, turn it into a liquid,transport it through a network of pipelines, and pump it into the ground,intending for it to stay buried forever.

From an industrial perspective, carbon sequestration seems like a winningstrategy. If it succeeded in reducing carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere,it would allow coal and oil firms to retain and even expand their market sharein the energy business throughout the 21st century, eliminating the need forsubstantial innovation. Carbon sequestration would also greatly reduce theincentive for Congress to invest in renewable energy, which competes with coaland oil.

Furthermore, carbon sequestration might deflect the accusation that the coaland oil corporations bear responsibility (and perhaps even legal liability) forthe major consequences of global warming (more and bigger hurricanes, droughts,floods, and fires, for example). Finally, if the carbon sequestration plan wereto fail, with grievous consequences for human civilization, failure would occurdecades or centuries into the future, when the current generation ofdecision-makers, researchers, philanthropists, and environmental advocates couldno longer be held accountable.

For all these reasons, coal, oil, mining, and automobile corporations, pluselectric utilities, are eager to get carbon sequestration going.

To accomplish their goal, the coal and oil firms are being helped byresearchers at Princetonand Stanforduniversities, and by the JoyceFoundation in Chicago, which is underwriting a campaign by environmentaladvocates on behalf of industry’s plan. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC),the Izaak Walton League, the Clean Air Task Force, the Michigan EnvironmentalCouncil, and others have received substantial grants to advocate for carbonsequestration. Finally, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administratorStephen Johnson recently endorsed industry’s plan. All the pieces are now inplace and an aggressive campaign is under way to persuadestate and federal legislators to endorse large-scale carbon sequestration.

What’s at stake

After trillions of tons of carbon dioxide have been buried in the deep earth,if even a tiny proportion of it leaks back out into the atmosphere, the planetcould heat rapidly and civilization as we know it could be disrupted. Quiteplausibly, the surface of the Earth could become uninhabitable for humans. Thus,one way or another, the future of humanity is at stake in the decision whetherto endorse carbon sequestration or to develop the many renewable energytechnologies that are available to eliminateour dependence on carbon-based fuels.

Major benefits for the coal industry

To one degree or another, carbon sequestration will benefit all of theindustries involved, allowing them to continue business as usual, removing theneed for substantial innovation, and reducing competition from renewable fuels.However, it is the coal industry that will benefit the most. One could arguethat, without carbon sequestration, the coal industry itself cannotsurvive. Once large-scale carbon sequestration has begun, the coal industrywill be free to unleash an enormous new enterprise turning coal into liquidfuels. The technology for coal-to-liquids, or CTL, was fully developed decadesago. CTL was devised by German chemists in the 1920s, and the Nazis could nothave pursued World War II without it. Unfortunately, coal-to-liquids is anexceptionally dirty technology that produces twice as much carbon dioxide pergallon of fuel compared to petroleum. Carbon sequestration would bury that extracarbon dioxide in the ground, thus solving the coal industry’s biggest problem,making coal-to-liquids feasible, and assuring a future for the coal industryitself.

You have perhaps heard the phrase “clean coal.” This contradictoryterm was coined by carbon sequestration advocates as a public relations ploy. In”clean coal,” the word “clean” is narrowly defined to mean”coal that contributes less carbon to the atmosphere in the short term,compared to typical coal combustion.”

In actual fact there is nothing clean about “clean coal.” Even iflarge-scale carbon sequestration begins, the mining and burning of “cleancoal” will continue to destroyhundreds of mountains in Appalachia, and will continue to pollute Midwesternand Eastern states with millions of tons of deadly fine and ultrafine particlesof soot (“fly ash”), plus nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx),mercury, dioxins, radioactive particles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, andso on. Large tonnages of coal bottom ash will still be buried each year inshallow pits overlying aquifers, creating a perpetual and growing threat todrinking water supplies. In the Midwest and West, large tracts of land, andlarge amounts of scarce water, would still be contaminated or otherwise madeunavailable for alternative uses. In sum, “clean coal” is anadvertising slogan without substance. Furthermore, if even a small proportion ofthe sequestered carbon from “clean coal” ever leaks out of the ground,the planet could experience runaway global warming.

The danger of tiny leaks

It is important to distinguish between carbon dioxide and carbon itself.Carbon is an element, one of the 92 naturally-occurring building blocks of theuniverse. Carbon dioxide is a chemical compound made up of one carbon atomattached to two oxygen atoms (CO2). By weight, carbon dioxide is 27% carbon; inother words, one ton of elemental carbon will create 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide.Carbon dioxide is the main “greenhouse gas” thought to be contributingto global warming.1

Before the industrial revolution, there were 580 billion tonnes of carbon inEarth’s atmosphere; today there are 750 billion tonnes (an increaseof 170 billion tonnes, or 29%, since about 1750). Because humans burnroughly 2%more coal, oil and natural gas each year (thus doubling total use every 35years), the carbon buildup in the atmosphere is accelerating. Presently humansare emitting about eightbillion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year, not all of which isretained there.

Unfortunately, emissions of eight billion tonnes per year are sufficient toworsen a global warming problem.1

The amount of carbon held in underground supplies of coal, oil, and naturalgas is very large. By a conservative estimate, worldwide there are 3510 billiontonnes of carbon remaining underground in coal; 230 billion tonnes of carbon inoil; and another 140 billion tonnes of carbon in natural gas (plus 250 billiontonnes in peat), for atotal of 4130 billion tonnes of carbon held in fossil fuels globally. If25% of this were burned and the carbon sequestered, leakage of only 0.8% of thetotal per year would exceed the current annual human contribution to atmosphericcarbon (eight billion tonnes). And of course the oil and coal companiesplan to burn far more than 25% of what remains in the ground. Their goal is toburn 100% of it. If they managed to burn 75% of remaining fuels, then annualleakage of 0.26% of the total would exceed the current eight billion tonneannual human contribution to atmospheric carbon. This could eventually lead torunaway global warming, plausibly rendering the Earth uninhabitable for humans.

It is now widely believed that humans must cut their carbon emissions 80%by the year 2050 to avert runaway global warming. (Actually, some nowcalculate that more than an 80% cut is needed — but for the sake of argument,let’s accept the lower 80% estimate at face value.) An 80% reduction from eightbillion tonnes would allow humans to emit only 1.6 billion tonnes of carbonannually to avert runaway global warming.

If we accept this estimate of the carbon reduction needed — cutting 80% fromcurrent levels — then the allowable leakage must be reduced accordingly:

  • if 25% of remaining fossil carbon is sequestered, any leakage above 0.16% (about one-sixth of one percent) of the total per year could eventually result in runaway global warming;
  • if 75% of remaining fossil carbon is sequestered, then leakage greater than 0.05% (one-twentieth of one percent) of the total per year could eventually produce runaway global warming.

Can humans bury several trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the ground withcomplete confidence that 0.05% of it will not leak out each year? Neverleak out? The leakage could begin at any time in the far distant future becausethe danger would lie buried forever, waiting to escape, a perpetual threat.

The short-term secondary effects of a carbon sequestration program are alsoworth considering.

Once large-scale carbon sequestration begins, it will be exceedinglydifficult to stop. As soon as sequestration begins, the coal and oilcorporations, and the environmental groups and universities advocating on theirbehalf, will assert that “carbon sequestration has been successfullydemonstrated.” Indeed, the environmental advocates are making suchclaims already, based on a very short history of pumping small amounts ofcarbon dioxide into oil wells to force more oil to the surface.2 Buthow can anyone “demonstrate” that leakage will neveroccur in the future? Such a demonstration cannot be made.

Furthermore, once the U.S. government begins to repeat the environmentalists’false claim that carbon sequestration has been “successfully demonstrated,” why would China not adopt it? And India, countries in Africa, the MiddleEast and the former Soviet Union –why wouldn’t they adopt it? If we claim aright to threaten the future of humanity, don’t others have an equal right toassert such a claim?

But can other countries devote the same resources we can devote to siting,engineering, and geologic studies? Will they all be able to monitor for leaksfar into the future, essentially forever? (For that matter, will the U.S. havethat capability? Humans have no experience creating institutions with a duty of perpetualvigilance.)

If the carbon-sequestration advocates can get their program started, it seemslikely that Congress will declare the global warming problem “solved”and carbon sequestration will be employed until all the recoverable fossil fuelsin the ground have been used up.

If carbon sequestration advocates can get their program going, the U.S. willhave little further incentive to invest in renewable sources of energy — and sowe stand to lose a unique opportunity to rebuild the U.S. economy on asustainable basis and revive America’s standing as an industrial leader in theworld. Carbon sequestration, once it gets started, will allow 19th centuryenergy technologies to dominate the U.S. throughout most of the 21st century.

In sum, to evade liability, to relieve pressure for innovation, to stiflecompetition, and to make a great deal of money, the proponents of carbonsequestration are betting the future of humans on an untestable technology — permanentunderground storage — an act of hubris unparalleled in the annals of ourspecies.3

Minds already made up

But, you may ask, “Doesn’t the U.S. have the strongest environmentalprotection laws in the world? Surely a vigilant Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) will ask hard questions, and protect us from the bias of industry’s hiredexperts?”

Last month U.S. EPA chief Stephen Johnson announced that EPA willissue regulations covering carbon sequestration. However, as he was announcingEPA’s intention, Mr. Johnson issued a ringing endorsement of carbonsequestration as the silver bullet to fix the nation’s environmental andeconomic problems: “By harnessing the power of geological sequestrationtechnology, we are entering a new age of clean energy where we can be both goodstewards of the Earth, and good stewards of the American economy, ” Mr.Johnson said. Clearly, Mr. Johnson’s mind is already made up.

The NRDC — which earned its reputation as a “shadow government” bywatchdogging EPA — now shares EPA’s giddy optimism toward carbon sequestration.In a letterto a California legislator, NRDC’s George Peridas asserts that carbonsequestration can be “perfectly safe.” And NRDC scientist DavidHawkins was quotedrecently saying carbon sequestration can be carried out with “very,very small risks.” NRDC has a $437,500 grantfrom the Joyce Foundation to promote carbon sequestration on industry’s behalf.

Clearly, these “experts” have their minds made up. But manycommon-sense questions remain:

  • Given that there are many good alternatives, why would humans accept even a “very, very small” risk of making their only home uninhabitable?
  • Given that the stakes are exceptionally high, shouldn’t we approach this with a little humility and ask, “What if the experts are wrong? What if they are fallible and haven’t thought of everything? What if their understanding is imperfect?” After all, geology has never been a predictive science, and humans have no experience burying lethal hazards in the ground expecting them to remain there in perpetuity.
  • Since everyone alive today — and all their children and their children’s children far into the future — could be affected, shouldn’t we have a vigorous international debate on the wisdom of carbon sequestration versus alternative ways of powering human economies? Don’t we have an obligation to develop a broad international consensus before proceeding — especially among the nations most likely to be harmed if carbon sequestration fails? [4, 5, 6, 7, 8].
  • And finally, given the exceedingly high stakes, the irreversible nature of carbon sequestration, and the substantial and irreducible uncertainties involved, isn’t this a decision that cries out for application of the precautionary principle?


1 Carbon dioxide is the main “greenhouse gas” causingglobal warming. As humans burn carbon-containing fuels (coal, oil and naturalgas), carbon in the fuel combines with oxygen in the air to create carbondioxide, or CO2. In the air, CO2 acts like the glass roof on a greenhouse — itlets in sunlight, which is converted into heat energy as it strikes the earth.When the heat energy radiates back into the sky, CO2 in the atmosphere acts likea mirror, reflecting heat back down to earth, warming the planet just as a glassroof warms a greenhouse. Global warming from this “greenhouse effect”was first described by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896.

2 Thirty-five million tons of CO2 are being pumped into depletedoil wells in Texas each year, to force oil to the surface. Thirty-five millionis 0.00035 percent of ten trillion. Scaling up a 35 megaton operation by afactor of 285,000 is not a trivial problem, but this is not mentioned by industry’sadvocates who are trying to persuade legislators to endorse large-scalecarbon sequestration.

3 Another human act that demonstrated similar hubris by a smalltechnical elite was the explosion of the first A-bomb at the Trinity Site insouthern New Mexico July 16, 1945. That morning, the Los Alamos scientistsinvolved were not sure that the bomb would work, but they also had a side-betgoing among themselves because they were unsure whether the bomb, if it did work,wouldn’t ignite the Earth’s atmosphere.


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