The Problem With Really Complicated Ideas to Make Dirty Energy Clean
I'd meant to link to this the other day, but Eugene Robinson is saying very sensible things about efforts to "capture" the carbon emissions generated by coal plants.
[W]ould the stuff stay down there? The whole point of the exercise, remember, would be to keep the carbon dioxide from getting into the atmosphere, where it would contribute to climate change. The idea is to confine it in specific types of geological formations that would contain it indefinitely. But scientists acknowledge that they can't be certain that the carbon dioxide will never migrate.
Scientists and engineers will have to prove that the possibility of a sudden, catastrophic carbon dioxide release from a storage site is exceedingly remote. I say "catastrophic" because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, and a ground-hugging cloud would suffocate anyone it enveloped. That is what happened in Cameroon in 1986, when naturally occurring carbon dioxide trapped at the bottom of Lake Nyos erupted and killed 1,746 people in nearby villages. Presumably, storage sites would not be located near population centers.
Perhaps more difficult will be proving that the carbon won't seep out slowly, say at a rate of 1 or 2 percent a year. There would be no health risk from a gradual escape, but we'd have gone to great trouble and expense, and the carbon dioxide would have made its way into the atmosphere after all.
This reminds me of a smart point from R. Douglas Arnold's The Logic of Congressional Action. Imagine you just stop building coal power plants. The probability of that reducing carbon emissions from coal is pretty close to 100 percent. Pretty good, right?
But take a more complicated policy like carbon sequestration. For this to work, a number of things need to happen: We need to develop cost-effective sequestration technology. We need legislation that forces coal plants to use it. We need coal plants to implement the technologies effectively. We need the technology to work 15 years down the road. Etc.
Imagine that all these things have a pretty good change of happening: 75 percent, say. The actual probability then that all of them happen is .75 x .75 x .75 x .75 -- that is to say, merely 32 percent. That's not so good.
(Photo credit: David Klobucar -- Associated Press Photo )
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