Richard Van Noorden
How do you feel about the idea of burying carbon dioxide underground near you, to cut emissions of the greenhouse gas from power plants and other industrial facilities?
While I was exploring the slow take-off of commercial Carbon Capture and Storage for a feature in Nature (subscription required) this week, the usual problems reared their heads: expense, technological uncertainty, insufficient regulation and so on.
But perhaps most intriguing was the potential roadblock of public protest. What especially interested me was that people living in different areas had very different views on gas sequestration.
In Barendrecht, the Netherlands, they’re threatening legal action against a pilot by Shell. In Greenville, Ohio, federal funding was not enough to see through a much-protested project to sequester carbon dioxide from an ethanol plant. In Texas, though, some people are ringing up the US Geological Survey to ask that carbon be buried under their land, I was told. One landowner in Mississippi didn’t want a geochemist’s team to do a geological survey of his land because he was afraid they’d find something that meant it couldn’t be a spot to inject carbon dioxide.
And near L’Aquila, Italy, people live comfortably above leaky stores of carbon dioxide, simply ventilating out gas that leaks into their cellars. Familiarity breeds contempt?
At current rates of progress, asking about your gut reaction to practical carbon storage is a purely hypothetical question. But the schedule that the International Energy Agency have set the industry is staggering. By 2050, the volume of liquid carbon dioxide that must be injected underground for permanent storage each year would be three times the annual amount of petroleum we currently use (85 million barrels).
Mind you, it’s the same story for the IEA’s projections of uptake of solar, nuclear, and wind power. It’s just that the lack of progress for CCS is particularly harmful because the strategy has a limited lifetime. It’s supposed to be a temporary, bridge technology that we use until cleaner forms of energy become economically competitive.
If you’re feeling sceptical about the scale of this energy transformation, join the club – Nature ran an analysis by Shell scientists on the physical limits to deploying new technology last December, which is worth a read (again subscription required).