Saturday, April 25, 2009

Carbon Sequestration: Injection of toxic gases into poor communities or the salvation of the fossil fuel industry, or both?

By Jane Williams
Executive Director
California Communities Against Toxics
Read the full article here

"Carbon Sequestration actually refers to the practice of injecting compressed CO2 gases into the ground to keep them from being released into the atmosphere where they are causing the planet to overheat. In order to be injected, the gases must be compressed into a liquid, a costly and expensive process; some experts estimate that 20% of the energy from a power plant will be needed to collect and compress the CO2 emitted from the plant. Once injected into the ground, the gases must be carefully monitored for leakage. This is because if the gases leak out, they are deadly. CO2 is lighter [Editor's note: this is a typo, the author has corrected this in a comment, it is heavier] than air, and displaces air when released into the environment. When the gases are released they stay close to the ground, displace oxygen, and suffocate everything in its path."

there are recent studies that conclude that carbon sequestration could create alarming environmental problems, endanger communities, and potentially be very costly to both ratepayers and taxpayers."

Two events in the relative recent history of CO2 emissions from natural sources underscore the community health hazard created if CO2 were to escape from sequestration:

The largest recent disaster caused by a large CO2 release from a lake occurred in 1986, in Cameroon, central Africa. A volcanic crater-lake known as Nyos belched bubbles of CO2 into the still night air and the gas settled around the lake's shore, where it killed 1800 people and countless thousands of animals.

The 15 August 1984 gas release at Lake Monoun that killed 37 people (Sigurdsson and others, 1987) was attributed to a rapid overturn of lake water with CO2 that had been at the bottom coming to the surface, triggered by an earthquake and landslide. The emission of around 1 cubic kilometer of CO2 devastated a local village and killed animals for miles. The people who died also had chemical burns on their skins, researchers do not know if that was from the CO2 emitted or from other contaminants that were released from the lake when the landslide occurred.

"Because of the expense of the practice, carbon sequestration would most likely be in oil fields in California where the carbon injected would be used to liberate extra gooey oil that cannot currently be extracted economically. In a large bit of romantic irony, carbon sequestration would be used to extract more carbon from the ground to be burned in the form of gasoline that would emit more CO2 into the air."

"The fossil fuel industry has shown no sign that they are willing to bear the liability of CO2 leaks from underground storage. Presumably that cost, which would be akin to a huge natural disaster for a community should a leak occur, would be borne by taxpayers."

The nuclear industry asked for, and got, immunity from liability for the release of its waste into the environment or a meltdown of one of its many reactors. In both the Price-Andersen Act in the 1950s and in the Energy Bill passed by Congress recently liability for nuclear accidents is the responsibility of the US taxpayer. Those same taxpayers are on the hook to accept all its nuclear waste as well.
Carbon sequestration is going down the same path. It’s been said that Texas recently voted to accept title to carbon sequestered beneath the huge Edwards Aquifer and to accept liability should the waste leak. This question of who will bear the costs should the unthinkable occur and a huge burp of CO2 extrudes in a California community has not even been asked and answered here in California.

Despite this, legislation is proceeding forward that will grant the folks in charge of oil and gas extraction in the state the sole authority to regulate the practice of carbon sequestration.

As well, the electricity coming from fossil fuel plants that do carbon sequestration will be more expensive because a lot of energy is lost in the process of running these specialized plants, in the actual sequestration operation, and the huge costs of building the pipelines, the plants, drilling the holes, and maintaining and monitoring the sequestration project. Presumably, all those costs will be passed onto the customers as well.

When CO2 is injected into the ground it becomes corrosive to the rock and liberates the metals that are in the ground. Concerns have been raised about these toxic chemicals affecting ground water. California relies upon its groundwater for more than 40% of its water supply. As well, CO2’s acidic nature is corrosive to the underground environment and the gases can actually eat through rock. There is clearly the potential for this captured gas to escape at some point in the future. A recent pilot project that injected CO2 into the subsurface in a brine filled oil reservoir liberated metals and organic chemicals as well as dissolved the rock, creating pathways through which the gas could escape.

The legislature passed a bill by Assemblymember Blakeslee (AB 1925) last year that has the Department of Conservation doing a report on carbon sequestration for the legislature. We do not have the benefit of that report and it is not due until November of this year. As well, under the architecture of AB 32, carbon sequestration is covered under the scoping plans which are to undergo review by the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee on Greenhouse Gases. This bill would have regulations on carbon sequestration skirt the review of that committee.

The dangers to community health and the huge costs involved in carbon sequestration (which will be borne by ratepayers and taxpayers ultimately) deserve close scrutiny. The science and policy issues surrounding the burial of extremely toxic gases in environmental justice communities deserves a special select committee of the legislature to examine and report back to the relevant policy committees.

Piecing together schemes to inject toxic gases under the ground in environmental justice communities in order to continue reliance on fossil fuels as our energy source is just not good policy. A switch to sustainable, renewable energy and conservation is the rational long term solution to our global warming problem

Jane Williams serves as the Executive Director of California Communities Against Toxics (CCAT). She is responsible for directing this 70 member environmental justice coalition in California, which is statewide and works on pollution, environmental justice policy issues, and directly assists communities affected by environmental pollution. She has served on many statewide advisory committees, testified in front of Congress and the State Legislature, and spoken at conferences on the impacts of pollution in adversely impacted communities.

She currently serves on the federal committee that advises the Department of Defense on the disposal of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile. She was recently appointed to the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee for Greenhouse Gases at the Air Resources Board. Jane makes herself available night and day for community efforts, championing human health and the environment.
Posted on April 22, 2007"