August 15, 2009
Don’t worry about the risks of earthquakes or suffocation or water contamination. Carbon capture is good, really
If you live in or near a community that manufactures chemicals or cement, or that has a refinery or a coal or natural gas electricity generating station, or that has abandoned mines or other suitable geological formations, you may soon be asked to save the planet from global warming by hosting an underground carbon dioxide storage facility.
You and your neighbours will be told not to worry about carbon dioxide poisoning your water supplies. Yes, ruptures or large leaks of the gas could not only make the water undrinkable for you but also kill vegetation and aquatic life, the authorities will acknowledge, but inventors are working on new, improved technology that will prevent underground pipes and other infrastructure from leaking.
You and your neighbours will also be told not to worry about mass asphyxiation in your sleep in the event of an unexpected release of carbon dioxide, a gas that’s heavier than air — to their knowledge, that only happened to humans once before, in rural Africa when a release of naturally stored carbon dioxide from Lake Nyos in Cameroon enshrouded and suffocated 1,700 people. The authorities in Canada promise to take this risk seriously and double-promise to design state-of-the-art carbon dioxide storage plants that won’t fail fed by pipelines that won’t blow out. Plus, they’ll install monitors in case plants fail or pipelines blow out.
Finally, you and your neighbours will be told not to worry about the possibility that your community will become susceptible to earthquakes. Yes, the authorities will admit when pressed, these carbon-storage facilities are expected to become one of the top five triggers of earthquakes — induced seismicity, it’s called — but hey, somebody’s got to save the planet and the authorities have selected you.
In turn, you and your neighbours, having received all these assurances from the authorities — and having confirmed that the government plans to exempt the carbon-storage industry from liability in the event of an accident — will rise up in opposition and try to run the authorities out of town.
I am guessing, of course, at what you and your neighbours will ultimately decide to do — maybe your community can be bribed into acquiescence. But I am not guessing that our federal and provincial governments have a crash program underway to make Canada an early leader in the carbon-storage industry.
Last month, the Alberta government, which has already committed $2-billion to carbon-storage schemes, announced the province’s first host communities as if it had selected lottery winners. “Alberta announces three winning projects for carbon-capture funding,” reported the Calgary Herald. “[They] will each receive a portion of $2-billion in carbon capture and storage funding, if final negotiations between the province and companies are successful.”
The neighbours to the winners — Edmonton-area ventures involving Shell Canada, Chevron Canada and Epcor, among others — may feel more like guinea pigs after the public consultations begin, and concerns get aired. The government expects the storage facilities to be up and running by 2015, meaning that the pressure will soon be on to ram these projects through. Look for environmental groups to be enlisted as government persuaders — the Alberta-based Pembina Institute has already recommended that environmental groups take on this enabling role. And look for the environmental groups to be held in the same regard as the governments and companies they are working with.
Last September, a carbon-storage demonstration scheme in northern Germany — Vattenfall’s Schwarze Pumpe project in Spremberg — opened to wide acclaim. The $110-million facility was touted as the first to trap carbon dioxide at a coal plant before transporting it for burial. Last week it came out that the burial never happened. Because of local opposition, the town had refused to give Vattenfall a permit for burial. Rather than storing the gas underground, Vattenfall revealed during a conference, it has been quietly (and safely) venting the carbon dioxide straight into the atmosphere all along. Similarly, local opposition foiled Shell’s plans to store carbon dioxide in depleted gas fields under the Dutch town of Barendrecht, near Rotterdam, in March. After sitting through a public consultation, and receiving assurances from Shell that the technology is proven to be safe, 1,300 residents lodged their protests.
The Numby phenomenon — Not Under My Back Yard — is not limited to opposition by local residents: industries with a stake in safe water are also alarmed. The American Water Works Association, a trade group representing 4,700 water utilities that produce 80% of America’s drinking water, has added the carbon-storage industry to coal and the other resource industries that threaten its interests and those of its customers.
“Our biggest concern is the prevention of degradation of underground sources of drinking water” by interfering with the complex chemistry of water in underground settings, the association told Congress in detailed testimony last year, citing the numerous ways that carbon dioxide burial threatens aquifers with profound contamination, and noting that many communities don’t have alternative sources of affordable drinking water.
The association also noted that carbon-storage technology is unproven and may not even succeed in its primary goal, of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Why risk a nation’s water supplies without the evidence being in, it asked Congress. Why indeed.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute and author of The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud.
Photo: Carbon-capture plants may worry neighbouring communities. (Canwest News Service)