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The Future of Carbon Capture and Sequestration symposium was held at Boalt Hall, School of Law here at the University of California, Berkeley this afternoon.

Carbon Sequestration Symposium

Carbon Sequestration Symposium

Panel Chair: Prof. Inez Fung, Professor, Environmental Science, Policy and Management

Sponsors: Berkeley Institute of the Environment, The Center for Energy and Environmental Innovation, The California Center for Environmental Law and Policy, The Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center

There is no longer any doubt that CO2 in the atmosphere is bringing on global warming, and will precipitate disaster within the lifetimes of living children if left unchecked. This symposium of five intelligent, articulate and highly informed scientists from the United States National Laboratory at Livermore, California gave fifteen minute lectures followed by a question period.

The take home message was that large scale pumping of CO2 deep into the ground was a possible way to sequester more than half of that pollutant before it entered the atmosphere. The technology is straight forward and has already been tested, on a large scale project, by the country of Norway. The gas is greatly reduced in volume after being pumped deep underground because turns into a liquid at the high pressure. We were shown a map of the Earth where there are many very large areas scattered throughout the world where gas can be stored using this method. Those areas occur where there is a gas permeable layer like sandstone deep underground beneath an impermeable layer like clay or salt. The CO2 once put down into the sandstone layer would stay put for millions of years and no longer pose a hazard for modern humans.

The cost of putting the CO2 into these permanent storage locations would add about 6 cents per kilowatt/hour to the price of grid electricity which is about the same amount of money that is being used to subsidize the wind turbine method for creating electricity.

This carbon sequestration method presented by these scientists seemed quite reasonable, but when they discussed the problems of actually getting the political and monetary support to do these very large scale projects the whole thing foundered. It seems that even here in the US where the money might be found for such a project to get started a single contentious legal opponent could put a multi-year delay into the whole process of implementing it. The problem is in part, that these CO2 gas fields will spread horizontally for quite a long distance away from their insertion wells and there would be considerable trouble proving that it wouldn’t contaminate the water supply. That is an extremely unlikely eventuality, but proving it would not happen would be costly and take a lot of time, and ultimately impossible in an absolute sense. If the public were behind the sequestration then it could be hurried along but the discussion seemed to indicate that it would take about about ten years before any new large scale project could be brought on line. And that would just be a start and only in the US. The human population is expanding by some 75 million per year which will probably put more CO2 into the future air than these presently proposed sequestration projects are going to remove for at least twenty years.

Obviously any CO2 that goes into the air by any person on the planet affects all of us so everyone must be controlled, because all of those persons who simply dump their CO2 during their normal daily activities will be contaminating the air for everyone. But the problem is that on an individual level it is more economical to dump their CO2 into the air by simply using their most convenient local energy source. Those who dump their CO2 can go about their lives more efficiently than their neighbors who don’t. And polluters on the personal and national level may manufacture their products more cheaply than their competitors who do go to the effort and expense of sequestering their pollutants. Transnational enforcement would be difficult and probably impossible to enforce in small projects. Unless there is a single worldwide policing force it becomes counter productive for any individual or even a country to comply with the regulation, and until caught and punished it would be more economically productive for them to cheat. It isn’t possible to enforce this type of CO2 law on small local polluters, but it can be done on coal fired plants and autos. The better solution is to invent ways to make energy available more cheaply than the cheapest form of dirty energy currently available to them.

My question was, “Is there a large scale way to remove CO2 from the air after it has already gotten there, that way the small farmer could heat his house and burn his wood fired kitchen stove without ruining the atmosphere?” The answer was that there are several ways but that it is far cheaper to remove it at the coal burning electric power plants. I said, eventually, there must be large scale clean up of the air, but I was told, so far apparently nothing has been on anything other than speculative lab work.

Sources for further study, with a Google search:

IPCC Special Report 2004

CO2 Monograph SPE

MIT Report: Future of Coal

DOE Basic Research Needs 2007

IOGCC draft guidelines 2007

NAS study CO2

WRI CCS draft guidelines

EPA draft regulations DOE documents

North America CO2 Atlas