Capturing our way out of the carbon mess


Ah, geoengineering. That crazy idea to manipulate earth's atmosphere to do the opposite of what our current manipulations are doing -- cool the planet instead of warm it -- has made its way back into the headlines recently, with pieces in the New Yorker and Scientific American.

Geoengineering would be a desperate measure indeed, stemming from complete national and global failure to sufficiently reduce carbon emissions.

The fact that it's being discussed ever more seriously is acknowledgement that the world's climate is changing in ways guaranteed to be deeply disruptive. In the New Yorker article, Hugh Hunt, an engineering professor at Cambridge University, likens geoengineering to chemotherapy -- a poisonous, damaging treatment undertaken as a last resort, when death is the only other option. It's a powerful metaphor.

The author of that story, Michael Specter, classifies geoengineering into two areas. The first, solar radiation management, seeks to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching and heating the earth. It involves seemingly crazy but gravely discussed ideas like pumping particles into the atmosphere to mimic sun-blocking volcanic eruptions. (This idea was also discussed in the 2009 book Superfreakonomics) The second area of geoengineering is commonly referred to as carbon capture and storage, or CCS. Capturing carbon and storing it is less risky than more exotic high-tech forms of geoengineering, but Specter's piece moves past the CCS option quickly, saying it is expensive technology that will take a long time to have an effect.

True enough, but manipulating the amount of sunlight hitting the earth is also expensive, and perhaps even more unlikely than capturing carbon and storing it. The New Yorker piece may focus on these extreme manipulations as a means of underscoring the lack of sensible action on the climate front. But recent new in the energy world points to a need to give the other kind of geoengineering -- carbon capture and storage -- another look.

Last week, Bloomberg News reported on a Texas oil refinery that has partnered with a third-party carbon capture company from Allentown, Penn., to become the first U.S. utility-scale carbon capture and storage plant that will keep the CO2 it produces out of the atmosphere. The Pennsylvania company capturing the CO2, Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., will make money selling it to oil companies drilling in the nearby Permian Basin, who will pump it into the ground to enhance oil recovery, where it replaces oil in underground reservoirs.  

The lack of a market for CO2 has long been a stumbling block for carbon capture companies. Another CCS effort in Texas' Permian Basin, a coal plant that will capture its emissions, is receiving lots of subsidies in order to make it economical, as journalist Mark Gunther notes in his write-up of the effort. Absent a tax on carbon or any kind of market making CO2 a material worth selling, perhaps expensive carbon capture projects (Gunther has written about several of them in the publication Yale E360) will never become widespread. A Canadian company recently dropped its carbon capture and storage project because it didn't make financial sense.  And FutureGen, the Department of Energy's terminally flawed carbon capture and storage coal plant, has never gotten off the ground.

Yet China is also forging ahead with carbon capture. Companies there are planning to sell the CO2 they capture to soda companies, or transform it into solid carbonate for use in road construction. If the technology matures enough, maybe at some point capturing carbon dioxide for manufacturing use will be cheaper than drilling it out of the earth and piping it to oil fields for use in getting more crude out of the ground, as the company KinderMorgan currently does.

Widespread carbon capture and storage technology may still be a ways off. But here's hoping it's nearer to reality than its geoengineering alternative: a giant vacuum tube spewing sunlight-blocking sulfur dioxide particles into the earth's atmosphere.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

Images courtesy Flickr user Enokson and Flickr user Alessandro Pautasso