TCS Daily

Little Hot Air Exhausted on Capturing Carbon

By Kenneth Green - June 27, 2001 12:00 AM

"What goes up, must come down. Spinning wheel, got to go round." An apt description of the carbon cycle, and one that most climate change alarmists forget about completely when contemplating policy options.

For decades, climate change alarmists have leapt straight from their accusation that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are raising the average temperature of the Earth straight to their favored policy response: eliminating the use of fossil fuels. Those who have proposed alternative policy approaches, such as pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to offset what humanity puts into it, have been castigated as wild-eyed dreamers. The international community also turns a blind eye toward the idea of carbon capture, possibly because a greenhouse gas reduction pact based on fuel-use reduction would hobble their main competitor - the United States - and give Europe a free economic advantage.

But research is piling up to show that a whole host of technological approaches could remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Momentum is building for the exploration of such options in lieu of fuel use reductions or other cutbacks on energy use.

Researchers writing in Science magazine point out that forests, agricultural lands and surface rivers may already soak up as much as 50 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions. Estimates suggest that changes in forest management and agricultural techniques could enhance this effect, leading to the capture of an additional 35% of estimated emissions by 2050. Still other researchers are finding success with stashing carbon dioxide in old oil fields, or in the deep ocean.

In a recent New York Times article, for example, Kenneth Chang reported on a project in North Dakota where 5,000 tons of compressed carbon dioxide is pumped nearly a mile below the surface of the Earth every day, where, other studies suggest, it will remain for "thousands if not millions" of years. Burning of fossil fuels currently releases about 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, about a third of which is absorbed by the surface layers of the ocean. While 5,000 tons per day might seem like small potatoes, it looms much larger when one looks at the longer term: the Weyburn oil fields, where the Dakota Gasification plant is pumping some of its carbon dioxide emissions will eventually hold 20 million tons of carbon dioxide.

Researchers from MIT and non-profit research groups in Norway and the United States, meanwhile, are experimenting with stashing CO2 in the deep oceans, where it diffuses quickly into the water near the bottom, but then stays there for centuries.

Still other researchers find promise in dissolving carbon dioxide back into rocks. Out at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, scientists have created a system to lock carbon dioxide emissions up with magnesium silicate, producing solid rocks that would bind the carbon for eons. A small pilot plant could be built in only five years.

One would think that such achievements would warm the hearts of those alarmed over climate change. But apparently, it doesn't. Binding up atmospheric carbon dioxide is okay, says a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "As long as it doesn't displace support for efficiency and renewable energy programs....The first line of defense should be minimizing the creation of CO2 in the first place." According to the New York Times, Isaac Harp, president of the Coalition Against CO2 Dumping admits that ocean sequestration experiments pose little risk, opposes them anyway, since they might lead to (gasp) more experimentation, and possibly full-scale implementation!

Carbon capture, or sequestration technologies are proliferating, and showing increasing promise for future viability. If climate change does turn out to be a problem, and if greenhouse gases do turn out to be a large part of the cause, sequestration may well be able to accomplish what alarmists seem to fear: solve the problem without requiring cutbacks in energy use, or the use of fossil fuels.

Green directs the Environmental Program at Reason Public Policy Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank headquartered in Los Angeles.

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