David Suzuki: Renewable energy, not carbon capture and storage

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      What can we do with wastes from our industrial pursuits—from fossil fuel extraction, agriculture, chemical, and pharmaceutical manufacturing? We’ve been spewing lots of it into the air, but that isn’t a good plan. Carbon dioxide, ozone, mercury, and other emissions harm human health and contribute to global warming and holes in the ozone layer. We’ve dumped it into the oceans. But that compromises marine life that billions of people rely on for food.

      We could bury it: Out of sight, out of mind. But we’re learning that hiding it below our feet isn’t the best solution, either. Several scientific reports have called into question everything from injection wells to carbon capture and storage. The latter is a key component of the federal and Alberta governments’ climate change strategies and budgets.

      According to a recent study, little is known about leaks from the 680,000 waste and injection sites in the U.S., but structural failures are common. That’s not surprising when you consider that close to 130-trillion litres of toxic liquids have been pumped underground there over the past several decades. ProPublica, an investigative journalism website, reports that “the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn't always work.”

      Researchers say wells often leak, contaminating groundwater and sending waste and toxic chemicals to the surface. According to ProPublica, “From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined—more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.”

      Carbon capture and storage is another plan to hide our industrial wastes underground—in this case the carbon dioxide from operations like coal-fired power plants and tar sands that would otherwise be sent into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. The federal and Alberta governments have pinned much of their climate change mitigation hopes on the strategy, ponying up close to $3 billion to test the technology.

      One early venture ended in failure when the main company behind it pulled out. The Alberta and federal governments had committed close to $800 million for the $1.4 billion joint project between TransAlta, Capital Power, and Enbridge, which would have taken carbon from a coal-fired power plant west of Edmonton and either stored it underground or injected it into wells to recover oil. Even with generous government support, TransAlta spokespeople said the market for carbon sales and the price of emissions reductions were not good enough to justify going ahead and that the plan didn’t make economic sense without a federal price on carbon through a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax.

      The economic difficulties with carbon capture aren’t the only challenge. The U.S. National Research Council concluded that storing carbon underground can trigger earthquakes. And researchers at California’s Stanford University say that could fracture surrounding rocks, allowing carbon to escape. A Greenpeace report notes that the technology, which has yet to be proven effective on a large scale, is energy-intensive, expensive, unlikely to get emissions down quickly enough to avoid dangerous climate change, and undermines funding and research into cleaner energy solutions.

      In Alberta, taxpayers are on the hook for any problems that might arise once the carbon has been stored. By law, the Alberta government assumes liability for any maintenance, cleanup, or other costs. That the industry demanded this provision makes one question its confidence in the safety and reliability of the technology.

      On top of all that, we don’t really know what effect pumping millions of tonnes of CO2 into the ground will have on bacteria and other organisms below the surface.

      We need to consider many solutions to deal with waste, pollution, and global warming, but not risky and expensive schemes that serve only to enable our continued addiction to fossil fuels. Our best bet is to reduce waste and emissions. And rather than dumping money into schemes like carbon capture and storage, we should invest in renewable energy.

      Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



      jonny .

      Jul 3, 2012 at 5:06pm

      David Suzuki is my hero

      industrial environmentalist

      Jul 3, 2012 at 8:39pm

      I'm afraid to think what will happen when the US has contaminated the majority of their fresh water supply. Who do you think they are going to come to? Canadians should be weary of this, Houston has noticeably increased it's presence in Alberta oil-wise; expect water-wise in the next 10-15 years.

      Donald Rennie

      Jul 4, 2012 at 1:35am

      Houston won't want Alberta's water, the tar-sands projects will have contaminated all of that too.

      Plum Duff

      Jul 4, 2012 at 1:53pm

      I feel so much better now, knowing that.

      teth adam

      Jul 4, 2012 at 3:47pm

      can't disagree with his overall point of "we should invest in renewable energy."

      let's just hope nimbyism doesn't get in the way.

      let see, we don't want an energy supply based on oil, agreed.

      don't want wind, will kill birds.

      don't want nuclear, radioactive waste.

      solar, viable in BC???

      don't want hydroelectric, destroys habitats.

      what is left? thorium based nuclear technology (far less hazardous waste, left over crap cannot be used for weapons from what I understand)

      solar as a supplement?

      tidal plants? geothermal?

      All these alternatives would be expensive, but presumably would become less so due to economies of scale?

      not being political here, but what are the actual options?

      Donald Rennie

      Jul 5, 2012 at 2:15am

      what are the actual options?

      Wind and solar.

      Birds will die, if you flood their habitat by building a dam. Birds will die if you burn fossil fuels, or spill them. Birds even die when your nuke plant gets hit by an earthquake or tsunami.
      I would be surprised if any species of bird go extinct, if we built large enough off-shore wind-farm for Vancouver Island to send power to the mainland.
      Solar is so viable in BC. My aunt has lived in a solar heated house for 20 years, and a month ago I was up on my roof on a sunny day, and my cat nearly burned her feet after she jumped up there to be with me. (black asphalt tiles get pretty hot in the sun)

      teth adam

      Jul 5, 2012 at 11:32am

      Don't get me wrong, I think solar and wind are good ideas, but would they supply enough around the clock juice? Or would they be a supplement to something else?

      Algae biofuels? Fuel cells? Nuclear?

      What I am saying is any one particular source enough? Perhaps we should be looking at multiple renewable/clean sources.

      Guy Brodeur

      Jul 9, 2012 at 7:17pm

      Meanwhile we continue to burn fossil fuels while BC's Naikun project sits ideal. This site has an average Gross Capacity Factor (GCF) of 55%, and in the winter when the electricity is most needed a GCF of close to 70%. This is unquestionably one of the best and largest wind resources in the world.
      So why has it gone undeveloped especially now when equipment costs are on the decline, interest rates are at historic lows, and turbine generator output has close to doubled. The project is economically viable and will reward investors and stakeholders for years to come. In addition BC’s NW is seeing an increase in mining activity and the possible construction of an LNG terminal which all leads to increased demand for electricity.