Geosequestration: Burying carbon or burying our heads in the sand?
AUSTRALIA - Climate change will impact every one of us. For this reason, governments all over the world are making moves to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions. Geosequestration is the new kid on the block in energy technology research. It has become very popular politically, so much so that the Howard Government, following the lead of the US, is investing heavily in it. But at what cost?
:::A Question of Permanence and Liability:::
Geosequestration invovles the capture of CO2 emitted by power stations, its compression and transport in pipelines to burial site such as underground aquifers. There has been an overseas pilot ocean sequestration project, the Sleipner project in Norway, that has been operating for five years.
However, one of the biggest questions for this new technology is whether the liquefied carbon dioxide will remain where it is deposited and for how long. Estimates by scientists with the GEODISC program conclude that CO2 burial sites will have to be maintained for as long as 100,000 years (Bradshaw et al 2002). There is no national or international legislation to deal with such a long-term liability of care. Current regulatory proposals by the Ministerial Council for Mineral and Petroleum Resources include government taking the liability for leakage and maintenance after the proponent (corporation) has completed the project, which is generally between 30 and 50 years. This is moves the burden to the government and therefore tax-payers for ensuring the project does not leak or contaminant surround areas for thousands of years a completely unacceptable injustice for future generations of Australians and not nearly long enough for ecological security. Air need only be contaminated with as little as 25% CO2 to be lethal to humans and animals. CO2 leakage into groundwater causes acidification. Catastrophic leakages of CO2 do occur: in 1980, CO2 escaping from Lake Nyos (Cameroon) asphixyated 1700 people to death.
Geosequestration as a solution to GHG emissions negates both the precautionary and the polluter-pays principles. The technology should be rejected as an ecological solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The fact continues that the safest ‘storage’ of carbon dioxide is in the form of coal and other fossil fuels in the underground forms that they naturally occur in. If the industry is truly worried about CO2 emissions we should be moving away from fossil fuel energy sources.
:::Social and ecological injustice in the fossil fuel industry:::
Regardless of whether geosequestration adequately ‘deals’ with the carbon emissions of combusting fossil fuels, globally there are several environmental and social burdens of extracting fossil fuels. The World Bank's own extractive industry review found that extractive industries create more poverty, disease, and dislocation of peoples and greater environmental damage than the benefit brought by the trade of those primary products. The World Bank itself recommends investment in renewable energy as a poverty alleviation measure.
Why do the extractive fuel industries increase poverty and social injustice?
1. Ecological damage: Nigeria alone has an estimated 300 oil leaks per year from badly maintained oil pipelines.
2. Support of military and oppressive regimes: Many of those energy corporations have been implicated in thousands of human rights violations and environmental mismanagement. Shell, Chevron Texaco and Exxon Mobil are well known for their involvement in oil spills and human rights abuses in the Niger Delta and Latin America.
3. Diversion of Government funding: Rio Tinto, Australia’s biggest coal producer, has already received as much as $340m in Australian government subsidies in the last few years (Bob Brown, Senate Inquiry, 2003). Rio Tinto was implicated in human rights violations in Bougainville and PNG in the 1990’s.
4. Energy poverty: Geosequestration cannot be claimed as an environmental solution, if it will further entrench out dependence of fossil fuels with all of the association environmental problems of extraction and consumption. In developing nations this means massive infrastructure developments compared to renewables technologies. Investment in geosequestration technology by the biggest emitting companies will not deliver justice for the rest of the world, nor will it contribute to the alleviation of energy poverty in the global South: It will not be a useful technology for mitigating climate change for some time, if it works. If it does not, it actually makes the greenhouse gas problem worse as capturing, compressing and transporting the carbon is a very energy intensive process.
5. Decline in environmental health: All fossil fuel emissions contain a number of noxious substances that are harmful to human health at many levels. Smog causes acid rain that causes fauna deaths and smog particles contribute to respiratory illnesses, lung cancer and asthma; the consumption of lead enriched fuels contributes to retarded intellectual development of children, causes cancer and birth defects. Fumes and noise in industrial and traffic-heavy areas can render some areas unpleasant, indeed dangerous, for pedestrians and animals alike. Ultimately, exhaust fumes from cars are contributing in a big way to global warming.
Geosequestration deals with only one of the many adverse effects of fossil fuel usage, while leaving the poverty stricken to still live in concrete highways zones, in oil spill and gas flaring zones and adjacent to emitting industries, breathing in toxic emissions. In the wider view, it is obvious that investment in non-emitting industries is always going to be the most humane option.
:::Bridging technology or TNC's profit making ruse?:::
Geosequestration has been promoted as a potential ‘bridging’ technology that will enable the reduction of emissions whilst renewable technology and energy efficiency technology advances to the point of being able to supply our energy requirements. This position is neither practical nor realistic due to the current lack of funding for renewable technology. In the 'Energy White Paper' (2004) the government committed itself to geosequestration research and development through the $500 million ‘Low Emissions Fund’. This is on top of the $30 million already allocated to CSIRO for geosequestration research. Whilst this fund is not for geosequestration and ‘clean coal’ per say, the funds from government need to be matched dollar for dollar from private industry this is simply beyond the financial capacity of most of the renewable energy and energy efficiency industry. Renewables simply cannot compete with a fossil fuel industry that already enjoys $9 billion a year in government subsidies.
It is naive to believe that fossil fuel TNCs will gracefully bow-out of energy generation and supply as renewable energy/energy efficiency grows. This is clear from the history of fossil fuel corporations both nationally and internationally, and in particular the behaviour of the fossil fuel cartels who have attempted to undermine international climate negotiations. This has been well documented by the non-government community internationally.
In Australia, the proponents of the Gorgon project, which will become the biggest geosequestration project in the world, located under A grade nature reserve, are Shell, Chevron Texaco and Exxon. For such a greenhouse pollution intensive project as this, beginning at a time when carbon emissions are likely to become costly, as will inevitably occur within the next decade, the project will become economically unviable. Therefore, GJV propose to inject 60% of the CO2 emissions underground. Their interest in this project is profit, not environmental protection.
If this were truly a bridging technology we would be experiencing at least equal support for geosequestration and fossil fuel technologies AND renewable energy/energy efficiency technologies. There is current no co-operative research center for renewable energy in Australia and only a tiny 2% of the energy market is dedicated to renewable energy generation. Action in these areas of research and market share is absolutely necessary if Australia is to make a transition to renewable energy.
The funding and research diverted to geosequestration technology will have long term and possibly dangerous consequences for all people affected by climate change, and for Australians alive today and for future generations. Investment in this technology now, to the detriment of renewable energy will disadvantage the future of all of us.
:::Business as usual for the worst emitters:::
Geosequestration is an end-of-pipe solution that does not deal with primary causes of climate change: the gross overconsumption of fossil fuels by the minority world. Australia's first place in the per capita emission stakes indicates how severely unsustainable our lifestyles, industry and economic systems are. A primary response to creating climate justice is consuming less. We don't need to suffer to do this, but industries and governments must take responsibility for efficiency and alternatives, rather than relying on technological fixes that will further our dependence on fossil fuels.
Any climate justice strategy must deliver more equitable access of natural resources (including energy) to peoples across the world. A genuine solution to climate change would be a commitment by the Australian federal government to a 20% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 60% by 2050 and the development of policy to enable the application of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to achieve our energy needs rather than our energy greed.
Investing so much our country’s research funds for climate change into geosequestration will divert important funding from renewable technologies that will help energy poor countries and remote areas of Australia jump the ‘technology barrier’ and circumvent going thorough a financially burdensome and energy-intensive industrialization process to develop. Research dollars for renewable energy technology can enable Australia to help small poorer nations to convert to sustainable energy technologies before they are caught in the fossil fuel investment cycle. This is particularly pertinent to our near neighbours in the Pacific who will suffer greatly from the impact of climate change, who are also trapped in poverty because there is limited access to electricity from which to increase their quality of life via health and education services, with increased opportunity for local enterprise. Best of all, it can improve our quality of life at home too: freeing up funds for socially useful projects, improving air quality and giving us that warm inner glow that comes from having done the right thing by the rest of the world.
Kim Stewart (Phd Researcher, Griffith University)
Steph Long (Climate Justice Campaigner, FoE Australia)
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Tarlo, K 2003 “Comparing the risks in reducing greenhouse gas emissions: coal with geosequestration vs. sustainable energy” Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney. Presentation to Green Capital Geo-sequestration Debate, Melbourne, 30 October.
World Bank 2001 "Extractive Industries Review" Website at www.eireview.org/
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