Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Climate Change: Magic Beans

In the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk, the "hero" trades his family's future for some magic beans. And that's pretty much what the 8 Rivers "clean energy" project the fossil fuel industry are currently pushing boils down to. The basic idea is that they burn natural gas to produce hydrogen fuel, synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, and a bit of electricity. So far, so business-as-usual. What's different is that they claim they will capture and store the resulting carbon dioxide, so all of this will be environmentally OK. Obviously, this ignores the harmful effects of that fertiliser, which poisons our rivers and turns into the dangerous greenhouse gas nitrous oxide which is almost 300 times worse than carbon dioxide, but still: the removal of carbon dioxide emissions would be a major benefit. So, should we do it?

Hell no. The problem is that carbon capture and storage is an experimental technology, and we don't know if it will work. The world is littered with failed CCS projects, and usually rather than shutting down the plant just keeps on polluting. So there's a high chance that instead of a "clean energy" plant, we'll end up with the same old dirty energy we want to eliminate, spewing out greenhouse gases for fifty years while the world drowns. And that is simply an outcome we can not risk. If we want electricity, it is better to use renewables. If we want hydrogen, it is better to use renewables. We don't want synthetic nitrogen fertiliser anyway, so that's a cost, not a benefit.

Then there's the problem of leakage. In theory, carbon dioxide stored in empty gas fields should stay down there for thousands of years. But we don't know whether it actually will, and that assumes that it actually gets there in the first place (some projects leak above ground), and that it is properly maintained (difficult to assume given the timespan involved). But quite apart from the climate effects, depending on location a leak could be catastrophic. In 1986, a burp of naturally stored carbon dioxide beneath Lake Nyos killed over 1,700 people. Unless storage sites are carefully chosen, they could turn into similar carbon bombs.

(The regulatory issue here is fascinating. How do you regulate something that must last longer than human civilisation? Even in the short-term, how do you prevent the sociopathy incentivised by limited liability from causing companies to take the money from "storing" emissions, then declaring bankruptcy and abandoning them to leak? Any solution has to start with tossing away limited liability, shattering the corporate shell, and holding beneficial owners responsible, all the way up the corporate chain if necessary. It needs to involve ongoing and absolute liability for leakage. And probably a bond to cover the full cost of all stored emissions. Anything less, and a government is selling out its peoples' interests to polluters).

Globally, this technology is expensive failure, pushed only by cranks in the fossil fuel industry who want to pretend nothing has changed. It is not something we should bet our future on, and its certainly not something the government should fund. Rather than betting our future on magic beans, we should use technology we know works and does not risk environmental destruction: renewables.