Rachel's Democracy & Health News #939, December 27, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: The nation's new energy law will cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by a mere 4.7% by 2030 at a time when scientists say we need cuts 5 to 10 times as large. The U.S. seems to be painting itself into a corner, creating a global warming emergency, which may then be used to convince us to accept the only "solution" favored by the coal, oil, mining, railroad and automobile industries: burying carbon dioxide a mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever.]

By Peter Montague

President Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 on December 19. The Sierra Club celebrated the new law as a "historic victory." The Union of Concerned Scientists called it "landmark" legislation. Reports in the nation's major newspapers (Los Angeles Times and N.Y. Times) focused on two of the new law's boldest provisions --

** By 2020, U.S. automobiles must average 35 miles per gallon (with light trucks and SUVs included in the average for the first time), and

** Production of ethanol, a home-grown gasoline additive, must rise from 9 billion gallons per year in 2008 to 36 billion gallons per year by 2020.

The 822-page law also requires that energy-efficiency standards eventually be set for many household appliances and electric motors, and it outlaws the sale of most incandescent light bulbs by 2012. Furthermore, the law says new or renovated federal buildings must use 55% less fossil fuel by 2010 and 100% less by 2030 -- in other words by 2030 federal buildings have to produce at least as much energy as they use.

Effect on Carbon Dioxide Emissions

An initial analysis of the greenhouse-gas-reduction potential of the new law has been provided by the American Council for an Energy- Efficient Economy (ACEEE). They calculate that, by 2020, the law will have reduced U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by a cumulative total of 2017 million metric tonnes (megatonnes); by 2030, they say, the law will have reduced cumulative U.S. CO2 emissions by a total of 7679 megatonnes. (One million metric tonnes = one megatonne = one trillion grams = 1E12 grams = 1 teragram; one tonne of CO2 contains 12/44 of a tonne of carbon).

How big a dent in the nation's total CO2 emissions will the 2007 energy law make?

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 1990 and 2005 U.S. annual CO2 emissions rose from 5529 megatonnes to 6432 megatonnes. In other words, between 1990 and 2005, U.S. CO2 emissions grew exponentially at the rate of 1.01% per year. If that modest 1.01% growth-rate were to continue from 2008 through 2020, the cumulative CO2 emissions during the period would total 84,557 megatonnes and during 2008-2030 the cumulative total emitted would be 164,041 megatonnes. Therefore we can see that by 2020 the 2007 energy law will have reduced total U.S. CO2 emissions by 2017/84557*100 = 2.4% and by 2030 the reduction will be 7679/164041*100 = 4.7%.

In sum, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will force only a small reduction in U.S. CO2 emissions between now and 2030. And that assumes the law is totally effective. Business Week magazine predicts that these sections of the law will never be enforced. More likely, they say, these sections will be ignored and fines will be levied, merely driving up the price of automobiles and gasoline as the cost of fines is passed on to consumers.

In any case, one thing is clear: the U.S. has announced no plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to any substantial degree. Obviously we are painting ourselves into a corner -- the longer we delay making the needed reductions, the more drastic the required reductions become. When Congress finally acts, it will be in response to an emergency that the U.S. has intentionally created. As we know, the U.S. financial and political systems thrive on emergencies just such as this one.

During the climate change conference in Bali in mid-December, the European Union pressed the industrialized world to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by somewhere between 25% and 40% by 2020 -- at least 10 times the reductions built into the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. However, the U.S. derailed that Bali plan by flatly refusing to go along with any numerical targets, even voluntary ones.

While the Bali conference was under way, in the U.S. the business- friendly Conference Board issued a report showing that 40% reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved with only modest investments. This raises the question, if the Conference Board acknowledges that the desired reductions are affordable, why does the U.S. consistently refuse to allow them to be adopted as a voluntary international goal? The oil and coal industries have nothing to gain from efficiency or renewable sources of energy and have successfully resisted all efforts by Congress to force them to help pay to remediate the problems they have created. The Energy Independence and Security Act originally included $13 billion in taxes on oil corporations, earmarked for the support of renewable energy. By the time the law was enacted that $13 billion support for renewables had evaporated. The insider's newsletter, Greenwire, attributed this remarkable evaporation to the "raw power" of the oil corporations. This year alone the oil corporations have given members of Congress $75 million in reward for fealty. The question is, under what circumstances -- if any -- will the oil and coal corporations allow the U.S. to reduce CO2 emissions?

The Size of the CO2 Problem

In 2005, humans worldwide dumped about 27 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from fuel combustion.[1, pg. 48]

For many years, global CO2 releases from industrial sources have been increasing steadily by about 2% per year,[2] thus doubling in size every 35 years. If this growth-rate continues, global industrial CO2 emissions during the 45-year period 2005-2050 will total 2 trillion tonnes and by the end of this century will total 8.2 trillion tonnes. This gives us some feel for the size of the world's problem -- it is very large.

A variety of solutions to these problems have been proposed.

1. Energy efficiency. As we have seen, 40% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are considered affordable by the Conference Board, which serves U.S. industrial corporations. However, we have also seen that the U.S. delegation would not allow even 25% to be set as a voluntary international goal at the Bali Conference, and the best Congress could do in the 2007 energy law was a 4.7% reduction by 2030. No, the U.S. government clearly is not able to take energy conservation seriously. The "raw power" of the oil and coal corporations will not allow it.

2. Renewable energy -- wind and other forms of solar power. Numerous technologies exist for rapid deployment of solar power, developing an energy system that is carbon-free and nuclear-free -- but oil and coal corporations oppose the necessary investments. Globally, renewable energy is not expected to develop substantially between now and 2030. According to the Wall Street Journal, in its most recent annual report, World Energy Outlook 2007, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that by 2030 renewable sources of energy will be no further along than they are today: "Renewable energy sources such as solar will grow in use in certain areas, like the United Kingdom, but the current logistical challenges and costs of using and developing them mean all renewable energy sources will remain a fraction of total energy use globally in 2030 at about 10%, unchanged from today," says the IEA.

3. Extract CO2 from the air. A machine to extract CO2 from the air was announced this month by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Their aim is to split CO2 into carbon monoxide and oxygen, and then to use these as building blocks for new liquid fuels, which would compete with petroleum products like gasoline. Initially Sandia plans to extract CO2 from the smokestacks of power plants but eventually, they say, they intend to extract CO2 from the atmosphere to create "carbon neutral" liquid fuels. It remains to be seen whether the development of this potentially- subversive machine will be allowed to continue.

Another technique for extracting CO2 from the atmosphere would mix it with alkaline and alkaline-earth oxides to produce solid compounds such as magnesium carbonate and limestone (calcium carbonate).[3, Chapter 7] This would require mining 1.6 to 3.7 tonnes of silicates for each tonne of CO2 and would produce 2.6 to 4.7 tonnes of carbonate rocks for each tonne of CO2 -- in sum, a very large mining and waste- rock disposal operation.

Another machine to extract CO2 from the air was announced earlier this year by Columbia University. The announcement pointed out that the captured carbon dioxide could then be buried in the ground. We predict that this machine will quickly attract major investment from oil and coal corporations. As we'll see, it is exactly what they need.

4. Carbon capture and storage: Here, finally, we come to the only approach strongly favored by the U.S. government, by the coal, oil, automobile, mining and railroad industries, by teams of researchers at more than a dozen universities, and by several of the big environmental organizations in Washington and New York (Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council [NRDC], The Izaak Walton League, The Clean Air Task Force, and even the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others). This is the basket our eggs are in.

The plan is to extract CO2 from industrial smoke stacks (or from the open air), compress it into a liquid, and pump it 3000 to 8000 feet below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. This plan is known as CCS, which stands for carbon capture and sequestration, or carbon capture and storage.

Of all the options described above, only CCS is being vigorously pursued. The U.S. Department of Energy has allocated roughly $2 billion to CCS projects that are going on now in 41 states. More than a dozen universities are researching the pros if not the cons. Several prominent environmental organizations have enthusiastically endorsed the plan, even before a decade of necessary research has begun. It is no exaggeration to say that CCS has become a bandwagon -- or a juggernaut.

Very few people have heard of CCS; in the U.S., at least, it is essentially invisible. Yet it is so far along that it looks like a done deal, almost unstoppable. It seems clear that coal and oil corporations and their camp followers are counting on CCS to solve the global warming problem. CCS is a major industrial plan; all other proposed solutions to global warming are tinker toys by comparison.

No environmental organizations and no news reports have so far mentioned it, but a major feature of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 is Title VII, which requires the federal government to undertake a nationwide assessment of the suitability of geological formations capable of storing carbon dioxide underground. (A "Carbon Sequestration Atlas of the U.S." has already been produced [29 Mbyte PDF].) Title VII also requires the federal government to support seven projects to demonstrate the capture of CO2 from industrial sources. This is the most far-reaching section of the 2007 energy law and you can be sure that Title VII will be vigorously enforced. The coal industry will see to that.

The CCS plan was devised by the coal industry, but has the financial support of many of the world's most powerful corporations, an all-star cast from the oil, gas, mining, railroad, and automobile industries: American Electric Power, the American Petroleum Institute, Aramco Services, BP (formerly British Petroleum), Chevron, ConocoPhillips, The Electric Power Research Institute, ExxonMobil, Ford Motor, General Electric, General Motors, Marathon Oil, Peabody Energy, Schlumberger, Shell Oil, Southern Company, and Toyota, among others. They, in turn, have lined up support within academia and the corporate environmental organizations.

The coal industry is betting its whole future on the CCS plan: "Coal is going to be the answer and is the answer, and carbon capture and sequestration is the answer to climate change," says Steven F. Leer, chief executive officer of Arch Coal, Inc., the nation's second- largest coal company, after Peabody Energy. If the CCS plan fails, the coal industry will fade into history, at least in the U.S., where carbon dioxide emissions are causing cancellations of new coal-fired power plants.

Here is why CCS seems like such a good idea -- the only good idea -- from the viewpoint of the fossil corporations, coal and oil:

1. CCS is compatible with the existing energy infrastructure. If industry's carbon dioxide can be buried in the ground, the coal and oil industries can continue Business as Usual until declining supplies make fossil fuels too expensive. If the fossil fuel industries can maintain Business as Usual, then so can the mining, railroad and automobile industries. Nothing will have to change. Once CCS has been "demonstrated" (a word that means very different things to different people) then the major incentive to conserve energy or develop renewables will evaporate. Even the small federal investment currently devoted to conservation and renewables could be logically withdrawn. Why spend money on futuristic energy technologies that are not needed -- especially potentially-subversive sources like solar that lend themselves to dispersed community control but not to centralized corporate control?

2. After it has been injected into the ground, carbon dioxide will be out of sight and out of mind. Best of all, it will be irretrievable and its precise whereabouts will be unknowable. Once it's down there, it's beyond human control. Of course corporate experts will claim to know where it is, but it will be loose in the deep earth and under tremendous pressure from the weight of the earth above it. Buoyant forces will be constantly pushing it upward. It turns water acidic and so can leach rocks. The site where it is buried will be poorly understood because of a fundamental catch-22: to understand the geology a mile below ground in detail requires numerous bore holes sunk into the earth. But these bore holes ruin the natural integrity of the site and make leakage more likely. So you can have a poorly- understood site that retains its integrity, or a well-understood site that has lost its integrity, but you can't have a well-understood site that retains its integrity. Thus the perpetual danger of leakage will be with us and with our children and with their children and their children's children....

Happily, after a few decades the injected CO2 will almost certainly be forgotten as other, bigger problems absorb humanity's attention and resources. Humans have no experience paying attention to anything for hundreds of years, much less tens of thousands of years. By the time leaks begin to occur -- even if by chance anyone is still paying attention and leakage is detected -- the people who created the problem will be long gone. The public will be left holding the bag. The fossil fuel industry has already proposed that its liability for buried CO2 should end after just 10 years.) This is very similar to present-day U.S. hazardous waste law, which allows waste corporations to bury megatonnes of industrial poisons in the ground. Almost everyone involved acknowledges that these poisons will eventually leak, but the companies that do the deed are only legally liable for 30 years. After that, it's the public's problem. CO2 storage is being proposed on this same corporate-friendly model.

3. Injecting CO2 into the ground is something that only a handful of geologists, physicists and engineers will be able to discuss in detail. Within the U.S. regulatory framework, in which individuals typically are invited to public hearings where they are given 5 minutes or less to ask questions and offer facts and perspectives, there will be no way for the public to participate in CCS decisions. Thus this "techno-fix" will further weaken U.S. democracy, leaving the important decisions to partisan corporate "experts," some of whom will work directly for industry, some for academia, and some for corporate environmental organizations. The media can be counted on to present all these experts as independent and occasionally even adversarial.

As with the nuclear industry, those who make the decisions on CCS will be engineers with a vested interest in saying that it can be done "safely" (without ever defining what that word means in the context of burying trillions of tonnes of liquid CO2 a mile below ground "forever"). Given the decline of U.S. government regulatory capacity during the past 30 years, there is no regulatory structure left to counter the claims of partisan advocates and corporate experts. When he announced that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would soon write regulations governing CCS, EPA chief Stephen Johnson said, "By harnessing the power of geologic 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." In other words, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already been captured. We cannot expect EPA to provide a probing analysis of the serious dangers of CCS. Who then will do it? Many of the corporate environmental groups have also been captured. The skids are fully greased.

4. It is relatively easy for unprincipled technical personnel to claim that CCS can be accomplished safely. There is no way to "demonstrate" that CO2 can be stored underground forever. No matter how long you run your test, it could always fail next year as leaks develop. So "successful" CO2 storage cannot be demonstrated -- given that the goal is storage in perpetuity. Therefore, engineers will define some other "test" that they will then claim "demonstrates" successful CO2 storage. In fact, almost any test will do. Example: CO2 is currently being buried in the ground at three locations, about a million tonnes per year at each site. A million tonnes may sound like a lot, but it is minuscule compared to the total amount of CO2 being produced. To bury even two trillion tonnes -- much less 8 trillion tonnes -- would require scaling up current operations by a factor of 2E12/3E6 = 670,000. Despite the major difficulties inherent in such enormous growth, a small group of corporate environmentalists and corporate-funded academics in the U.S. is already claiming that CCS has been successfully demonstrated. The public is not well-prepared to understand the shameless deception and rank dishonesty of such a claim.

5. Carbon capture and storage provides a way for energy corporations to make a great deal of money from the CO2 catastrophe that they have created, which they have spent millions denying and thus prolonging. If the Columbia University CO2 extraction machine works as advertised, perhaps the patents will be purchased by oil and coal corporations so that they can profit doubly from the machine. U.S. coal and oil firms may soon be marketing their "proven safe" carbon storage services to China and India, where regulation and oversight will be even more lax than in the U.S. Large amounts of money could be made in the short term, and in the long term when the CO2 begins to leak out and heat up the planet, perhaps threatening the tenure of humans on earth, it will be somebody else's problem.

6. All the CCS activity generated by the U.S. Department of Energy creates the impression that CCS is just around the corner. Given this, coal companies can promise to build new power plants that could use CCS but don't have to use CCS (they could just as easily, and far more cheaply, dump their CO2 into the atmosphere). Such plants are called "capture ready."

CCS will cost anywhere from $50 to $100 per tonne of CO2 captured (not including the costs of transport and burial). So carbon capture may eliminate coal's price advantage over renewable fuels. Therefore actually burying carbon in the deep earth may not be what the coal companies are counting on. "The coal industry's many proposals to build 'clean' coal plants that are 'capture ready' across the U.S. is a smokescreen," says Leslie Harroun, a senior program officer at the Oak Foundation in London, U.K. Until a decade of research is completed, CCS may just be something to talk about with bluff and bluster, to gain permission to build a hundred or more "capture ready" coal-fired power plants. That would be a strategy Big Coal could take to the bank right now.


[1] International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics 2007. Paris: International Energy Agency, 2007, pg. 48.

[2] Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen, "Implications of 'peak oil' for atmospheric CO2 and climate." Available online in PDF.

[3] Bert Metz, Ogunlade Davidson and others, editors, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC Special Report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). (23 Mbyte PDF)