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Catching up on carbon capture projects

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Neil LaRubbio | Mar 15, 2012 06:00 AM

On a recent bike ride home from Paonia's Paradise Theater, where the evening film was Melancholia, Lars Von Trier’s surreal goodbye to planet Earth, I observed the starry Colorado sky like a born-again tramp and only slightly avoided succumbing to the dolor from the film's creeping commentary on humanity’s desperate plight against a doomed existence.

girl treeTo branch off the film’s bleak theories and into another circular news thread with no resolution in sight, it seems the idea of capturing carbon from high-emissions industries and sequestering it within the Earth is facing serious pessimism. Dr. Sally Benson, professor and executive director of the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University, says U.S. companies in the West that once led the charge are starting to waver.

After ebullient funding for research through the middle of the last decade, utilities and energy producers feel disinclined to pursue the practice of capturing carbon dioxide from belching sources and storing it somewhere that it can't escape, especially as they learn the price tag for such technology starts at around $3 billion for coal-fired power plants. That equates to a 30 to 70 percent rate hike for energy users receiving power from such plants. Meanwhile, at least one carbon capture and storage research plant in Wyoming, operated by North American Power Group Ltd. has been questioned in the media for using federal stimulus dollars to pay their executives handsomely rather than providing any new jobs.

Dr. Benson recently told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that there is "an overall lack of confidence in the capacity, safety and permanence of sequestration in deep geological formations." Plus, the world’s impasse on exactly what to do about climate change has left polluters complacent.

This is not to say that the fight’s over for Dr. Benson. She says that capturing carbon from power plants would decrease total CO2 emissions by 10 percent and that it’s something that must happen in emerging countries like China and India.

power plantOne group, the National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative, has a carbon strategy that some say falls a little short. Its representatives, who hail from seven states including Montana and Wyoming, recently announced a plan to lobby Congress for tax breaks for companies that capture and transport carbon dioxide used to enhance oil recovery in older fields. The group says their plan would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 4 billion tons over 40 years, though the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has expressed caution over the group’s plan to win carbon storage credits by injecting the wells with CO2, which displaces petroleum for extraction, "We need to make sure the operators perform sufficient diligence to make sure the wells are not leaking, and that they characterize their fields and know where their CO2 is going," NRDC scientist George Peridas told the Great Falls Tribune.

Not every human believes CO2 emissions need curbing or that they have a negative impact on our atmosphere, yet the reactions of some people to a day of reckoning are terrible to imagine. One character in Melancholia poisoned himself in a horse stable rather than face the truth when he realized the world would end. Of course, rather than a rogue planet suddenly fulfilling Earth’s fiery demise, the effects of global warming are unfolding like an ephemeral change of tides. Thus people like me cycle merrily along the potholed streets at the tail end of this Rocky Mountain winter, in shorts and sandals, wistfully ignorant of the larger calamity at hand.

I mean, what exactly are we going to do?

Neil LaRubbio is an intern at High Country News.

Images courtesy Flickr users Kathryn and Bruno D Rodrigues.

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