Burying carbon dioxide is a dumb, dumb idea

We have busied ourselves in a race between technology and man-caused tragedy.  Huge amounts of money and effort are being spent to develop an approach to address man-caused global warming.  One of the many approaches to address the alleged impending doom is the cutting-edge technology of "let's just bury it" by carbon sequestration.

Carbon sequestration technology is already quite well established.  This technology is the ongoing sequestration of carbon by plants, living then dying.  As one of many examples, here in my home state of Pennsylvania, we call that spring and fall.  Capturing CO2 emissions and pumping them into the ground is gaining in popularity on the established plant technology as a mitigation measure.  Consistent with the illogical, feel-good approach of the purveyors of man-caused global warming, the quiet secret is that the primary use of CO2 injection currently is to help mobilize oil and gas in underground hydrocarbon reservoirs to increase production.

As a requirement of CO2 sequestration, the U.S. EPA has developed regulations to address potential issues associated with CO2 sequestration.  As a part of these regulations, a Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) Plan is required.  This MRV Plan includes many components intended to address the man-made issues that the un-sequestering of CO2 may cause.  The MRV Plan requires a delineation of the maximum active monitoring area to detect the release of CO2 from the subsurface; active monitoring in the maximum area that could be affected by the sequestration; identification of potential CO2 surface leakage pathways, including the likelihood, magnitude, and timing of CO2 leakage; a strategy for monitoring CO2 leakage; consideration of the Safe Drinking Water Act, etc.  What could possibly go wrong?

We are unmoored from the logic of nature's systems and have dismissed our scientific humility to understand the entirety of the unknown of the Earth's systems — and, in the case of CO2 sequestration, the Earth's subsurface.  We play loosely with the quaint notion that CO2 also kills.  An African lake killed 1,800 people in the 1980s by releasing deadly amounts of CO2 that had accumulated there in the lake waters.  The CO2 had migrated to the lake waters from adjacent volcanic-influenced geologic structures.  To those involved, the unplanned, sudden un-sequestering of CO2 was a significant event.   

Clearly, projecting the behavior of a gas within complex subsurface geology is not possible in real time — or, more troubling, in the short and long term when even more changes to the already unknown subsurface can occur.  Geologically, we may explore surfaces by representative visualizations of small portions of the subsurface.  We can traverse the surface and remotely sense with the best technologies, drill into the earth and retrieve cores for direct observation, and still only have a partial understanding of the entire unseen subsurface.  The nuances of faults, fractures, lineaments, fissures, and differing rock structures' physical and chemical compositions will remain not perfectly understood.

As an example of problems that can arise, carbonic acid is formed as CO2 comes into contact with water, for our example within the subsurface.  As a consequence, components of CO2 injection well installation need to be manufactured against corrosion to avoid being breached by the action of the acid or even simply by additional gas pressure.  Also, the formation of carbonic acid may further enhance the potential migration of CO2 through the dissolution of the subsurface geology.

While much of the world struggles with even the basics for life — sufficient food, shelter, clean water, and basic disease prevention — only our portion of the "developed" world tilts at the windmill of controlling the Earth's climate by injecting a gas into the subsurface.  Geologic sequestration of CO2 is a testimony to our lack of reality, humanistic vanity, and proportionality addressing the pressing problems facing our world today.

Established facts are that the atmosphere comprises approximately 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 0.04% CO2, with the remaining various trace gases.  Human activity accounts for less than 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions.  That is 4% of the 0.04% of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  According to NASA, water vapor is unequivocally by far the most abundant contributor to the greenhouse effect.

Shall we spend our efforts wisely and maintain our own economic abundance so that we may help others and ourselves as others in the world continue with their emissions?  We provide huge contributions throughout the world to assist poor nations to grow crops, access clean water, overcome diseases that are only history to us, and respond to natural and man-made disasters.  Or shall we deal with the allegation of our relatively small amount of man-caused CO2 emissions, cripple ourselves economically, and diminish our ability to help others? 

As for the latter idea, let's just bury it.

Image via Pixnio.