The following is a guest essay from Peter Montague, executive director of the Environmental Research Foundation.

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In response to a relentless stream of bad news about global warming, a cluster of major industries has formed a loose partnership with big environmental groups, prestigious universities, philanthropic foundations, and the U.S. federal government — all promoting a technical quick-fix for global warming called "carbon sequestration."

"Carbon sequestration" is a plan to capture and bury as much as 10 trillion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide deep in the ground, hoping it will stay there forever. (A ton is 2,000 pounds; a metric tonne is 2,200 pounds; ten trillion is 10,000,000,000,000.) Though the plan has not yet received any substantial publicity, it is very far along.

The purpose of the plan is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). A carbon sequestration program would capture the gas, turn it into a liquid, transport it through a network of pipelines, and pump it into the ground, intending for it to stay buried forever.

From an industrial perspective, carbon sequestration seems like a winning strategy. If it succeeded in reducing carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, it would allow coal and oil firms to retain and even expand their market share in the energy business throughout the 21st century, eliminating the need for substantial innovation. Carbon sequestration would also greatly reduce the incentive for Congress to invest in renewable energy, which competes with coal and oil.

Furthermore, carbon sequestration might deflect the accusation that the coal and oil corporations bear responsibility (and perhaps even legal liability) for the major consequences of global warming (more and bigger hurricanes, droughts, floods, and fires, for example). Finally, if the carbon sequestration plan were to fail, with grievous consequences for human civilization, failure would occur decades or centuries into the future, when the current generation of decision-makers, researchers, philanthropists, and environmental advocates could no longer be held accountable.

For all these reasons, coal, oil, mining, and automobile corporations, plus electric utilities, are eager to get carbon sequestration going.

To accomplish their goal, the coal and oil firms are being helped by researchers at Princeton and Stanford universities, and by the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, which is underwriting a campaign by environmental advocates on behalf of industry’s plan. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Izaak Walton League, the Clean Air Task Force, the Michigan Environmental Council, and others have received substantial grants to advocate for carbon sequestration. Finally, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen Johnson recently endorsed industry’s plan. All the pieces are now in place and an aggressive campaign is under way to persuade state and federal legislators to endorse large-scale carbon sequestration.

What’s at stake

After trillions of tons of carbon dioxide have been buried in the deep earth, if even a tiny proportion of it leaks back out into the atmosphere, the planet could heat rapidly and civilization as we know it could be disrupted. Quite plausibly, the surface of the Earth could become uninhabitable for humans. Thus, one way or another, the future of humanity is at stake in the decision whether to endorse carbon sequestration or to develop the many renewable energy technologies that are available to eliminate our dependence on carbon-based fuels.

Major benefits for the coal industry

To one degree or another, carbon sequestration will benefit all of the industries involved, allowing them to continue business as usual, removing the need for substantial innovation, and reducing competition from renewable fuels. However, it is the coal industry that will benefit the most. One could argue that, without carbon sequestration, the coal industry itself cannot survive. Once large-scale carbon sequestration has begun, the coal industry will be free to unleash an enormous new enterprise turning coal into liquid fuels. The technology for coal-to-liquids, or CTL, was fully developed decades ago. CTL was devised by German chemists in the 1920s, and the Nazis could not have pursued World War II without it. Unfortunately, coal-to-liquids is an exceptionally dirty technology that produces twice as much carbon dioxide per gallon of fuel compared to petroleum. Carbon sequestration would bury that extra carbon dioxide in the ground, thus solving the coal industry’s biggest problem, making coal-to-liquids feasible, and assuring a future for the coal industry itself.

You have perhaps heard the phrase "clean coal." This contradictory term was coined by carbon sequestration advocates as a public relations ploy. In "clean coal," the word "clean" is narrowly defined to mean "coal that contributes less carbon to the atmosphere in the short term, compared to typical coal combustion."

In actual fact there is nothing clean about "clean coal." Even if large-scale carbon sequestration begins, the mining and burning of "clean coal" will continue to destroy hundreds of mountains in Appalachia, and will continue to pollute Midwestern and Eastern states with millions of tons of deadly fine and ultrafine particles of soot ("fly ash"), plus nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), mercury, dioxins, radioactive particles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and so on. Large tonnages of coal bottom ash will still be buried each year in shallow pits overlying aquifers, creating a perpetual and growing threat to drinking water supplies. In the Midwest and West, large tracts of land, and large amounts of scarce water, would still be contaminated or otherwise made unavailable for alternative uses. In sum, "clean coal" is an advertising slogan without substance. Furthermore, if even a small proportion of the sequestered carbon from "clean coal" ever leaks out of the ground, the planet could experience runaway global warming.

The danger of tiny leaks

It is important to distinguish between carbon dioxide and carbon itself. Carbon is an element, one of the 92 naturally-occurring building blocks of the universe. Carbon dioxide is a chemical compound made up of one carbon atom attached to two oxygen atoms (CO2). By weight, carbon dioxide is 27% carbon; in other words, one ton of elemental carbon will create 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the main "greenhouse gas" thought to be contributing to global warming.1

Before the industrial revolution, there were 580 billion tonnes of carbon in Earth’s atmosphere; today there are 750 billion tonnes (an increase of 170 billion tonnes, or 29%, since about 1750). Because humans burn roughly 2% more coal, oil and natural gas each year (thus doubling total use every 35 years), the carbon buildup in the atmosphere is accelerating. Presently humans are emitting about eight billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year, not all of which is retained there.

Unfortunately, emissions of eight billion tonnes per year are sufficient to worsen a global warming problem.1

The amount of carbon held in underground supplies of coal, oil, and natural gas is very large. By a conservative estimate, worldwide there are 3510 billion tonnes of carbon remaining underground in coal; 230 billion tonnes of carbon in oil; and another 140 billion tonnes of carbon in natural gas (plus 250 billion tonnes in peat), for a total of 4130 billion tonnes of carbon held in fossil fuels globally. If 25% of this were burned and the carbon sequestered, leakage of only 0.8% of the total per year would exceed the current annual human contribution to atmospheric carbon (eight billion tonnes). And of course the oil and coal companies plan to burn far more than 25% of what remains in the ground. Their goal is to burn 100% of it. If they managed to burn 75% of remaining fuels, then annual leakage of 0.26% of the total would exceed the current eight billion tonne annual human contribution to atmospheric carbon. This could eventually lead to runaway global warming, plausibly rendering the Earth uninhabitable for humans.

It is now widely believed that humans must cut their carbon emissions 80% by the year 2050 to avert runaway global warming. (Actually, some now calculate that more than an 80% cut is needed — but for the sake of argument, let’s accept the lower 80% estimate at face value.) An 80% reduction from eight billion tonnes would allow humans to emit only 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon annually to avert runaway global warming.

If we accept this estimate of the carbon reduction needed — cutting 80% from current levels — then the allowable leakage must be reduced accordingly:

  • if 25% of remaining fossil carbon is sequestered, any leakage above 0.16% (about one-sixth of one percent) of the total per year could eventually result in runaway global warming;
  • if 75% of remaining fossil carbon is sequestered, then leakage greater than 0.05% (one-twentieth of one percent) of the total per year could eventually produce runaway global warming.

Can humans bury several trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the ground with complete confidence that 0.05% of it will not leak out each year? Never leak out? The leakage could begin at any time in the far distant future because the danger would lie buried forever, waiting to escape, a perpetual threat.

The short-term secondary effects of a carbon sequestration program are also worth considering.

Once large-scale carbon sequestration begins, it will be exceedingly difficult to stop. As soon as sequestration begins, the coal and oil corporations, and the environmental groups and universities advocating on their behalf, will assert that "carbon sequestration has been successfully demonstrated." Indeed, the environmental advocates are making such claims already, based on a very short history of pumping small amounts of carbon dioxide into oil wells to force more oil to the surface.2 But how can anyone "demonstrate" that leakage will never occur in the future? Such a demonstration cannot be made.

Furthermore, once the U.S. government begins to repeat the environmentalists’ false claim that carbon sequestration has been "successfully demonstrated, " why would China not adopt it? And India, countries in Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union –why wouldn’t they adopt it? If we claim a right to threaten the future of humanity, don’t others have an equal right to assert such a claim?

But can other countries devote the same resources we can devote to siting, engineering, and geologic studies? Will they all be able to monitor for leaks far into the future, essentially forever? (For that matter, will the U.S. have that capability? Humans have no experience creating institutions with a duty of perpetual vigilance.)

If the carbon-sequestration advocates can get their program started, it seems likely that Congress will declare the global warming problem "solved" and carbon sequestration will be employed until all the recoverable fossil fuels in the ground have been used up.

If carbon sequestration advocates can get their program going, the U.S. will have little further incentive to invest in renewable sources of energy — and so we stand to lose a unique opportunity to rebuild the U.S. economy on a sustainable basis and revive America’s standing as an industrial leader in the world. Carbon sequestration, once it gets started, will allow 19th century energy technologies to dominate the U.S. throughout most of the 21st century.

In sum, to evade liability, to relieve pressure for innovation, to stifle competition, and to make a great deal of money, the proponents of carbon sequestration are betting the future of humans on an untestable technology — permanent underground storage — an act of hubris unparalleled in the annals of our species.3

Minds already made up

But, you may ask, "Doesn’t the U.S. have the strongest environmental protection laws in the world? Surely a vigilant Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will ask hard questions, and protect us from the bias of industry’s hired experts?”

Last month U.S. EPA chief Stephen Johnson announced that EPA will issue regulations covering carbon sequestration. However, as he was announcing EPA’s intention, Mr. Johnson issued a ringing endorsement of carbon sequestration as the silver bullet to fix the nation’s environmental and economic problems: "By harnessing the power of geological sequestration technology, we are entering a new age of clean energy where we can be both good stewards of the Earth, and good stewards of the American economy, " Mr. Johnson said. Clearly, Mr. Johnson’s mind is already made up.

The NRDC — which earned its reputation as a "shadow government" by watchdogging EPA — now shares EPA’s giddy optimism toward carbon sequestration. In a letter to a California legislator, NRDC’s George Peridas asserts that carbon sequestration can be "perfectly safe." And NRDC scientist David Hawkins was quoted recently saying carbon sequestration can be carried out with "very, very small risks." NRDC has a $437,500 grant from the Joyce Foundation to promote carbon sequestration on industry’s behalf.

Clearly, these "experts" have their minds made up. But many common-sense questions remain:

  • Given that there are many good alternatives, why would humans accept even a "very, very small" risk of making their only home uninhabitable?
  • Given that the stakes are exceptionally high, shouldn’t we approach this with a little humility and ask, "What if the experts are wrong? What if they are fallible and haven’t thought of everything? What if their understanding is imperfect?” After all, geology has never been a predictive science, and humans have no experience burying lethal hazards in the ground expecting them to remain there in perpetuity.
  • Since everyone alive today — and all their children and their children’s children far into the future — could be affected, shouldn’t we have a vigorous international debate on the wisdom of carbon sequestration versus alternative ways of powering human economies? Don’t we have an obligation to develop a broad international consensus before proceeding — especially among the nations most likely to be harmed if carbon sequestration fails? [4, 5, 6, 7, 8].
  • And finally, given the exceedingly high stakes, the irreversible nature of carbon sequestration, and the substantial and irreducible uncertainties involved, isn’t this a decision that cries out for application of the precautionary principle?

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1 Carbon dioxide is the main "greenhouse gas" causing global warming. As humans burn carbon-containing fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), carbon in the fuel combines with oxygen in the air to create carbon dioxide, or CO2. In the air, CO2 acts like the glass roof on a greenhouse — it lets in sunlight, which is converted into heat energy as it strikes the earth. When the heat energy radiates back into the sky, CO2 in the atmosphere acts like a mirror, reflecting heat back down to earth, warming the planet just as a glass roof warms a greenhouse. Global warming from this "greenhouse effect" was first described by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896.

2 Thirty-five million tons of CO2 are being pumped into depleted oil wells in Texas each year, to force oil to the surface. Thirty-five million is 0.00035 percent of ten trillion. Scaling up a 35 megaton operation by a factor of 285,000 is not a trivial problem, but this is not mentioned by industry’s advocates who are trying to persuade legislators to endorse large-scale carbon sequestration.

3 Another human act that demonstrated similar hubris by a small technical elite was the explosion of the first A-bomb at the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico July 16, 1945. That morning, the Los Alamos scientists involved were not sure that the bomb would work, but they also had a side-bet going among themselves because they were unsure whether the bomb, if it did work, wouldn’t ignite the Earth’s atmosphere.