Obama EPA explores using Clean Water Act to restrict CO2 emissions, ocean acidification — a fatal blow to geoengineering?

One of the biggest flaws in most of the major “hard” geo-engineering schemes is that they don’t stop carbon dioxide emissions from rising.  Injecting vast amounts of aerosols into the atmosphere or launching millions of tiny sun shields might theoretically reduce planetary warming a tad, but it doesn’t stop ocean acidification (see “Geo-engineering remains a bad idea“).

Yet, as Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies warned in 2007:

When CO2 levels in the atmosphere reach about 500 parts per million, you put calcification out of business in the oceans.

We’re at more than 385 ppm now, rising more than 2 ppm a year (see “World carbon dioxide levels jump 2.3 ppm in 2008 to highest in 650,000 “” if not 20 million “” years“).  Worse,

It isn’t just the coral reefs which are affected “” a large part of the plankton in the Southern Ocean, the coccolithophorids, are also affected. These drive ocean productivity and are the base of the food web which supports krill, whales, tuna and our fisheries. They also play a vital role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which could break down.

In short, too much acidification, and the ocean may turn from a major carbon sink to a carbon source!

So it was a bombshell when Energy Daily (subs. req’d) reported yesterday:

Opening a new front in the U.S. global warming debate, the Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday quietly launched a regulatory proceeding that ultimately could lead to a Clean Water Act mandate to restrict carbon dioxide emissions to protect the nation’s coastal waters from acidification.

In a “notice of data availability”(NODA) released Tuesday and published in the Federal Register Wednesday, EPA announced it is soliciting the latest scientific information on a host of issues related to the environmental impacts of carbon dioxide (CO2) deposition in ocean waters….

In its Tuesday notice, EPA said it will use the data to inform its deliberations on whether to tighten its water quality criterion for marine pH””the standard unit of measurement for defining the relative acidity or causticity of water. States use EPA Clean Water Act criteria to develop water quality regulations and controls to prevent pollution from harming public health and the environment.

Although EPA took pains to say it is “only requesting information and data relevant to addressing ocean acidification under the Clean Water Act,” it acknowledged that it will use the information “to fill data gaps to inform EPA’s next steps and determine whether changes in existing criteria are warranted.”

An agency decision to tighten the marine pH criterion almost certainly would lead to constraints on carbon emissions, under EPA’s Clean Water Act authority, to reduce the volume of carbon deposited in the oceans.

EPA’s action was prompted by a 2007 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, an energetic San Francisco-based environmental group that over the past six years racked up an impressive string of victories in legal battles with the Bush administration on climate change and other environmental issues.

In its petition to EPA, the center noted that the Clean Water Act, like other federal environmental laws, requires EPA to update its water quality criteria periodically to reflect the latest scientific research. The petition called EPA’s current marine pH criteria “outdated and inadequate” given advances in scientific understanding of ocean acidification.

EPA initially took no action on the petition, but following a threat of litigation from the center in November, the agency relented, leading to Tuesday’s notice.

Most news coverage on climate change science has focused on the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have caused global average temperatures to rise and are blamed for an alarming loss of Arctic summer sea ice, rapid melting of alpine and Antarctic glaciers, and other impacts.

But many scientists fear that the chemical changes caused by the natural uptake of CO2 by the world’s oceans could devastate marine ecosystems and sharply reduce fish populations, an outcome with alarming implications for global food supplies.

“Ocean acidification is likely the greatest threat to the health of our oceans and is occurring at a frightening rate,” said Miyoko Sakashita, a Center for Biological Diversity staff attorney. “The federal government has finally acknowledged that ocean acidification is a threat. Now it must take the next step and fully implement the Clean Water Act to protect our nation’s water from the other CO2 problem.”

According to research detailed in the center’s petition, the world’s oceans have taken up about half of the CO2 that humans have produced since the Industrial Revolution, dropping average ocean pH by 0.11 units, which translates to a 30 percent increase in acidity.

Under business-as-usual emission scenarios, by the end of the century the ocean pH will plunge another 0.4 units, an increase in acidity that scientists say would cause enormous, irreparable damage.

CO2 absorbed by seawater reacts to form carbonic acid, and ensuing chemical processes reduce the volume of ocean carbonate, which marine animals use to build and maintain their protective shells and skeletons.

“These changes present potential risks across a broad spectrum of marine ecosystems,” EPA said in its notice. “Impacts to shellfish and other calcifying organisms that represent the base of the food web may have implications for larger organisms that depend on shellfish and other calcifying organisms for prey.”

EPA said ocean acidification “is forecast to reduce calcification rates in corals and may affect economically important shellfish species including oysters, scallops, mussels, clams, sea urchins, crabs and lobsters.”

In addition, EPA said a recent field study on marine plankton””the tiny organisms that form the bottom of the marine food chain and play an important role in the natural carbon cycle””described reduce plankton shell weight over time “consistent with reduction calcification today induced by ocean acidification.”

EPA’s current marine pH criteria, established in 1976, allows variation of 0.2 pH units from normal conditions, but the agency notice cited research that demonstrated adverse impacts on marine organisms of pH changes of less than 0.2 units.

The Center for Biological Diversity petition called for EPA to establish new marine pH criteria that would allow no variance from normal conditions.

“Petitioner requests a new criterion that allows no measurable criterion of pH because new scientific information has shown that harm to aquatic life can occur at levels below the current EPA criterion, which allows 0.2 pH change,” the center said. “At a minimum, the revised change of allowable pH values should be much narrower because it is now well-accepted that devastating impacts occur at pH values that are within the current acceptable range.”

The bottom line is clear.

We can’t allow human emissions of CO2 to acidify the oceans enough to hurt calcification and destroy major marine ecosystems.  That alone could create a carbon cycle feedback sufficient to undermine national and international efforts to reduce net CO2 emissions build up in the atmosphere.  This is it doubly worrisome because some scientific research today suggests the ocean sink has already started to saturate (see “More on soaring carbon concentrations” and “The ocean is absorbing less carbon dioxide“).

“Hard” Geo-engineering — those large-scale planetary engineering schemes that don’t involve sucking CO2 out of the air aka “emergency interventions to cool the atmosphere should less drastic measures fail” as NYT‘s Revkin puts it — remains a hypothetical techno-fix that can’t replace strong greenhouse gas reduction efforts.  At worst, it is a purely false hope that might do more harm than good deployed at a large scale, and at best it might be a small, temporary bandaid that could accompany efforts to stabilize below 450 ppm, but only if it could be demonstrated to minimize amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks.

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27 Responses to Obama EPA explores using Clean Water Act to restrict CO2 emissions, ocean acidification — a fatal blow to geoengineering?

  1. Leland Palmer says:

    There is one form of energy production which is often lumped in with geoengineering, which would itself reduce ocean acidification – biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS) – resulting in carbon negative energy production.

    By removing carbon from the biosphere and atmosphere, biomass/CCS would start to decrease ocean acidification as well.


    Check out Figure 2.

    I believe we need to seize the coal fired power plants, and convert them to biocarbon fuel, oxyfuel combustion, and deep injection of the resulting nearly pure stream of CO2. By doing this worldwide, we could put billions of tons of carbon back into the ground per year. No other option that I am aware of can have the massive, decisive impact of carbon negative energy schemes. We are staring right at a methane catastrophe, in my opinion, if we don’t do this.

    We also need to develop the capability to permanently sequester carbon as a carbonate economically, in my opinion, as proposed by Lackner.

  2. paulm says:

    Sarah Palin: global warming convert?

    What, run that by me one more time…

    Sarah Palin: global warming convert?

  3. lgcarey says:

    Palin’s testimony appears to have been dictated by the cynical political expedience of using the global warming argument to advance her desire to have the Alaskan natural gas pipeline built, so that there can be more drilling and burning of fossil fuels, and more revenue for the State of Alaska. You will note that her testimony quoted in the Island of Doubt post is very carefully worded to avoid actually saying that SHE actually believes the science.

    Of course, it gets even worse. It’s true that burning natural gas emits less CO2 than coal, but as John Mashey notes in a reply to a post at Thingsbreak, “Of course, if one looks carefully at Palin’s gas pipeline plans, it appears that it goes to the Athabasca Hub, where presumably the gas would get used for tar sands extraction, not in sending to the Lower-48” See

  4. Tell me Joe, how else do you intend to fuel diesel trucks which you depend upon for your food every day?

    [JR: Anything but hydrogen. Probably diesel for a while — we don’t need to go to zero emissions until 2050ish. Then perhaps cellulosic biodiesel. Local trucks can be plug ins. And a bigger share of transport will be trains in coming decades (especially as coal use drops). Anything but hydrogen.]

  5. paulm says:

    The sun sets on the Tar Sands!

  6. Sasparilla says:

    Anything the admin needs to use to get US greenhouse gas emissions down, more power to them.

    We definitely don’t need another big feeback to add to the list (permafrost, clathrates, amazon drying and burning etc.). As far as the Oceans go though, I think most of the articles I’ve read consider keeping them in a PH safe state, a lost cause already – there’s too much CO2 in the pipeline going into them no matter what we do now.

    I didn’t see the Geo-engineering angle from the article cited in the page though.

    Most geo-engineering ideas seem to focus on reducing global temperatures slightly – and would only truly be useful (critical in fact) in a world that is trying to get emissions down but are not coming down fast enough and in which the said “world” is running into temperature increases (above 2.0C perhaps) where big self reinforcing feedbacks ( are threatening to take over the atmospheric warming process unless the temperatures are kept below a certain amount.

    This scenario seems to be exactly where we’re headed – we’re going to blow 450ppm and 2.0C (that UK paper’s climate scientist poll was truly depressing) and we’re going to need a way to cheat (for a period of time) to keep the temperature from climbing (and kicking off some or all of the big feedbacks) while we get CO2 emissions eliminated and (probably) actively bringing the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere down.

    It doesn’t seem that there is a snowball’s chance in heck that we’ll be able to get through this thing (without the big feedbacks taking over) on emissions reductions alone (it seems to be too late for that, given the world’s political realities).

    IMHO, we should be doing vetting of these (what I consider to be mostly wacky) geo-engineering schemes with appropriate small amounts of testing – so that when they’re needed (what if a big feedback starts cooking off at 1.5C instead of above 2.0C? we’ve been constantly wrong about when stuff would be happening), we know which ones are useful and what their downsides are. (so we don’t have to jump into using one without vetting in an emergency situation later)

  7. Jim Beacon says:

    As an active gardener using mostly containers for my plants, I keep track of my soil pH on a regular basis. I want to keep my soil in the “ideal” pH range of 6.0 to 7.0 for most plants (particularly the vegetables). After the recent torrential downpours in North Florida this month (16 inches in 10 days) my soil testing revealed that the pH in my containers had suddenly *dropped* drastically to a highly-acidic 3.0 (!) This pH level is too low for almost any plant to survive on for long — even acid-loving plants like asparagus and camellias. I can partially neutralize this acid rain in my containers with the surface application of powdered lime and wood ashes, but that’s obviously not a very practical solution for large-scale commercial farmers.

    These recent rains came up out of Mexico where, like in China and India, they have built a lot of new coal-fired electric power plants without the kind of gas scrubbing smoke stacks which are required on U.S. coal plants (these scrubbers reduce the emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) which cause acid rain, but do not completely eliminate them even in the U.S.)

    As this article indicates, it seems that acidification of ocean and rain water — once considered the most serious atmospheric concern in the U.S. because it directly and *immediately* affects our ability to grow food — is making a comeback in a big way. Dirty coal is not only bad in the long term for the CO2 is adds to the atmosphere, it is even more deadly in the short term for the acidic emissions which all these new power plants without scrubbers are now pumping out. Air pollution in China, India, Mexico and other unregulated places DOES NOT STAY in those countries. Yet the Cap and Trade treaties being worked on right now pretty much exempt those places from any immediate requirements to reduce emissions.

    I am trying hard to stay positive, but it’s beginning to look like more band aids are about to be applied to keep the public convinced that “something is being done” while no real attempt at serious global reform is going to be made.

    It seems that the world has learned nothing over the past 40 years — that the immediate concerns over “it’s the economy, stupid” still trump all other considerations — even the very real concern that our children will be left with a world where no economy or anything else can exist. Our leaders (including President Obama, I’m afraid) have made it clear they will consider the economics first and the consequences later, if at all.

  8. PeterW says:

    Hi Joe,

    I’m not a fan of geoengineering but I disagree with you that pumping aerosols in the atmosphere is not going to help the oceans. If done soon enough it could cool the earth a bit and slow the melting of the polar regions and slow the worldwide drying of forests. This would limit the release of positive feedback greenhouse gases. This should slow the accumulation in the atmosphere and therefore the oceans.

    If this was to be done it would only be a stop gap to give us a bit of time and should be done in concert with a WWII effort to get us off fossil fuels.

    I wouldn’t call for such drastic action but our collective house is on fire and the sooner we deal with this emergency the better.

    Am I missing something here?

    P.S. Thank you again for a great blog.

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Leland Palmer — Another solution, which exists now, is to make biochar and bury it deep underground. The price to do this is about the same as the price of fossil coal.

  10. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi David B. Benson –

    Yes, biochar, as a carbon negative technology, can have a huge impact, and can do so without deep injection of CO2. But, because much of the fuel energy is left in the biochar without combustion, it produces less electricity than biocarbon/CCS. So, it is a good option, with some advantages, but does not have some of the huge synergies of converting of the coal plants to carbon negative power plants.

    So long as the coal fired power plants keep belching out CO2, they are likely to quantitatively overwhelm everything else. We burn about a billion tons of coal every year, and this coal contains just about a billion tons of carbon, all of which goes right into the atmosphere, of course. If we converted all of these coal plants to biocarbon/CCS we could put roughly a billion tons of carbon per year back into the ground. This would enable us to do the following:

    Run lots of electric cars with the electricity produced this way.

    Burn a billion or more tons of fossil fuels, for example for transportation, until our cars are converted to electricity, to bring net emissions up to zero.

    Displace a billion tons of carbon from getting into the air in the first place.

    If some of the biomass came from cutting firebreaks through the forests and clearing out undergrowth, this could prevent hundreds of millions of tons of carbon from wildfires from entering the atmosphere.

    Keep tens or hundreds of millions of tons of carbonaceous trash out of landfills, and keep it from producing methane.

    Free up enough resources to plant billions of trees.

    And so on.

    If you install the Carma database, an interactive database of powerplants worldwide, and integrate it with Google Earth, you can explore where these plants are, and how much CO2 each plant emits and which countries are the real problem. The Carma database brings home visually what the problem is, and gives a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

    It would be politically and economically easier to do something with the coal fired power plants, rather than just scrap them. It looks like the coal plants can be converted to carbon negative power plants at essentially no efficiency penalty.

    NETL and Jupiter Oxygen Corp. have converted a small coal fired power plant to oxyfuel combustion, and it ran just fine. In fact, it ran better with oxygen than with air. In “untempered” mode, it actually ran hotter than air combustion without damaging the boiler, and ran almost 7 percent more efficiently than other oxyfuel combustion schemes. This extra Carnot efficiency from higher temperature combustion is roughly enough to pay the energy cost of separating the oxygen from the air cryogenically and compressing the subsequent almost pure stream of CO2 for deep injection.

    So with oxyfuel combustion, you get almost enough extra Carnot efficiency to pay for the subsequent compression of the CO2 for deep injection. So, you get essentially free carbon capture.

    Biocarbon takes biomass and makes it transportable, so that the biocarbon can be shipped long distances to the coal plants. Some energy is produced during the biomass conversion to biocarbon.

    The weak link in this scheme is still deep injection of the CO2 produced. In the long run, we could convert this CO2 into a carbonate by reacting it with calcium and magnesium containing silicates, as suggested by Lackner.

    But deep injection can buy us some time, decades perhaps, to solve the problem of carbon sequestration by mineral carbonation.

    Some coal plants are located in the desert, and could be partially converted to solar thermal power plants. Some coal plants are located fairly close to large sources of biomass which could be carbonized into biocarbon. Some likely are located close to sources of hot dry rock. And some of them could be converted to nuclear energy.

    Biochar, Biocarbon/CCS, and possible development of a carbon negative aggregate for concrete could each have a big impact on the problem. Each has advantages. Biochar, for example, can be done in place, and so does not have to be transported very far, if at all.

    But the quantitatively adequate solution to runaway global warming is biocarbon/CCS, in my opinion. This is the option that is big enough, and synergistic enough, to have a decisive impact, along with the stabilization wedge strategy advocated by this blog.

  11. Harrier says:

    Leland, I’ve become very intrigued by your plan for CO2 removal via biocarbon. What you suggest seems to be both feasible and performable on a large scale. Are these both the case?

    I wasn’t aware there were currently available methods that could remove CO2 from the air in quantities large enough to make a difference.

  12. Leland Palmer says:

    I think it’s feasible. It’s intriguing to me, too.

    If you Google “Read BECS” a series of papers will pop up written by Read about Biomass/CCS.

    If you visit, a long series of articles and references on this idea will pop up.

    The weak link is still carbon storage by deep injection. It could easily hapen that some of this CO2 will leak, and rise toward the surface, potentially acidifying groundwater.

    On the other hand, some CO2 trapped underground has been has been radioactively dated at 50 million or more years old, I think

    Lackner’s ideas about carbon sequestration by mineral carbonation would be much better than deep injection, if they could be carried out at reasonable cost. But nothing beats deep injection, right now, for storing billions of tons of carbon quickly and cheaply.

    The U.S. government recently completed mapping of deposits of magnesium and calcium silicate rocks that could potentially be carbonated by mineral carbonation, so they take this all pretty seriously.

    Lackner was involved in a project called ZECA, for Zero Emission Carbon Alliance. He used to work at Los Alamos, I think, and developed it there.

    Another reference, where I originally heard about the idea, is here:

    Scientific American: Can We Bury Global Warming?

    I work in a pharmaceutical lab as an analytical chemist, and adapt existing analytical methods for testing of new drug formulations there, so my work involves a certain amount of problem solving, done on a tight schedule with a tight budget. I’ve managed to survive in that sort of environment for 5 years, and have worked for more than 20 years in analytical laboratories.

    This is the solution that rings my alarm bells, and the one that I would pick if I had to solve the problem.

  13. Leland Palmer says:

    Whoops! Made a typo. ZECA was Zero Emission Coal Alliance, not Carbon Alliance.

  14. Leland Palmer says:

    Here we present estimates of the costs and
    conversion efficiency of electricity, hydrogen and heat generation from fossil fuels and biomass with
    CO2 capture and storage. We then insert these technology characteristics into a global energy and
    transportation model (GET 5.0), and calculate costs of stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentration at
    350 and 450 ppm. We find that carbon capture and storage technologies applied to fossil fuels have
    the potential to reduce the cost of meeting the 350 ppm stabilisation targets by 50% compared to a
    case where these technologies are not available and by 80% when BECS is allowed. For the 450 ppm
    scenario, the reduction in costs is 40 and 42%, respectively. Thus, the difference in costs between
    cases where BECS technologies are allowed and where they are not is marginal for the 450 ppm
    stabilization target. It is for very low stabilization targets that negative emissions become warranted,
    and this makes BECS more valuable than in cases with higher stabilization targets. Systematic and
    stochastic sensitivity analysis is performed. Finally, BECS opens up the possibility to remove CO2
    from the atmosphere. But this option should not be seen as an argument in favour of doing nothing
    about the climate problem now and then switching on this technology if climate change turns out to
    be a significant problem. It is not likely that BECS can be initiated sufficiently rapidly at a sufficient
    scale to follow this path to avoiding abrupt and serious climate changes if that would happen.

    From the link given in my first comment.


    We can stabilize CO2 at 350 ppm using BECS, but only if we act quickly.

    Biocarbon/oxyfuel gives us a way to do this fairly cheaply, using existing coal plants.

    We can solve this problem if we act now, IMO.

    But huge financial interests apparently want to drill for oil under our current arctic icecap, and would rather delay solving it until after the icecap melts, if you believe the output of Scott Borgerson of the Council on Foreign Affairs, in his series of articles for the CFR journal Foreign Affairs, his article in the New York Times, and his testimony before Congress. The Council on Foreign Affairs has historically been dominated by the Rockefeller family, especially David Rockefeller, who was the Chairman for decades. The Rockefeller family remain powerful enough within ExxonMobil to recently lead a fight to get rid of Lee Raymond, ex-CEO of Exxon.

    Scroll down to look at this guy’s series of articles.

    In his recent testimony before Congress, he actually hinted that we need a fleet of nuclear icebreakers, presumably to clear the way for tankers carrying arctic crude.

  15. CO2 sequestration (underground dumping) is not the solution.

    The GAO found, in the above cite last year, that DOEs focus on sequestration has been an expensive error. The cost of liquefying and transporting CO2 (even if we had some practical capture technology, which we don’t) is prohibitive, and it is a lethal gas which may leak out.

    Carbonate formation is a slow process, which can’t handle the enormous stream of CO2 from coal power plants. So all that is left is decomposing CO2 (and SOx) by electrolysis, which if done by fossil fuel energy produces more CO2 than is cracked.

    Renewables for cracking energy seems like the only hope of a solution. Coal power is not going away in any time near enough to make a difference, and CO2 cracking will have to be investigated. Co-siting wind and solar with coal plants will make use of renewable energy which might otherwise go to waste because of the intermittency issue. Also, the spinning reserve at coal plants could augment the renewable energy from wind at night, cracking the previous day’s CO2 and producing O2 (for improved combustion or gasification) as well as solid carbon. At least some of the CO2 problem can be taken care of this way.

  16. Leland Palmer says:

    Actually, I haven’t read the GAO report. But we have to remember that this was a Bush administration GAO, and that the financial interests that want no solution to this problem so that they can go drill for oil in the arctic are immensely powerful.

    Oxyfuel combustion, with it’s higher temperatures, produces enough extra Carnot efficiency to pay the energy cost of liquifaction and transportation, I believe, and may even pay the energy cost of cryogenic separation of the oxygen from the air. So, the GAO’s point about no practical capture technology has been negated, very quickly, by the retrofitted 2 MW coal plant tests done by Jupiter Oxygen Corporation and NETL. Jupiter and NETL got almost 7 percent higher efficiency from oxyfuel combustion, compared to other oxyfuel schemes – and this was a first effort. It may also be possible to get the oxygen by swing bed absorption, at a lower energy cost than cryogenic separation.

    The latest, somewhat dated, IPCC report was somewhat more upbeat:

    Information and experience gained
    from the injection and/or storage of CO2 from a large number
    of existing enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and acid gas projects,
    as well as from the Sleipner, Weyburn and In Salah projects,
    indicate that it is feasible to store CO2 in geological formations
    as a CO2 mitigation option. Industrial analogues, including
    underground natural gas storage projects around the world and
    acid gas injection projects, provide additional indications that
    CO2 can be safely injected and stored at well-characterized and
    properly managed sites. While there are differences between
    natural accumulations and engineered storage, injecting CO2 into
    deep geological formations at carefully selected sites can store
    it underground for long periods of time: it is considered likely
    that 99% or more of the injected CO2 will be retained for 1000
    years. Depleted oil and gas reservoirs, possibly coal formations
    and particularly saline formations (deep underground porous
    reservoir rocks saturated with brackish water or brine), can
    be used for storage of CO2. At depths below about 800–1000
    m, supercritical CO2 has a liquid-like density that provides the
    potential for efficient utilization of underground storage space
    in the pores of sedimentary rocks. Carbon dioxide can remain
    trapped underground by virtue of a number of mechanisms, such
    as: trapping below an impermeable, confining layer (caprock);
    retention as an immobile phase trapped in the pore spaces
    of the storage formation; dissolution in the in situ formation
    fluids; and/or adsorption onto organic matter in coal and shale.
    Additionally, it may be trapped by reacting with the minerals
    in the storage formation and caprock to produce carbonate
    minerals. Models are available to predict what happens when
    CO2 is injected underground. Also, by avoiding deteriorated
    wells or open fractures or faults, injected CO2 will be retained
    for very long periods of time. Moreover, CO2 becomes less
    mobile over time as a result of multiple trapping mechanisms,
    further lowering the prospect of leakage.

    Really, though, CCS should be looked at as a stopgap measure, meant to stop the bleeding, rather than a permanent solution, IMO. The permanent solution is geologically stable conversion to a carbonate – and then not digging any more darned fossil fuels out of the ground!

  17. Insuring the risk from CO2 stored underground, or passing through in a pipeline, remains an unsolved problem with CCS. The scale of the storage is mind-boggling. The IPCC report should be looked at as a political document. There is no way to make sure that CO2 won’t leak out, eventually. CCS as currently envisioned (chemical post-combustion CO2 capture and underground storage) is illusory “clean coal” happy talk and nothing more than placatory cover for more coal-fired power plants.

  18. David B. Benson says:

    Leland Palmer — Biocarbon/CCS certainly ought to be tried. But even without the CCS, it seems that biochar made from algae ought to be able to compete with fossil coal especially if the algae farm, etc., is located in a region with lots of sunshine and fairly low wages. Here is a useful abstact:
    Thermal characterisation of microalgae under slow pyrolysis conditions

  19. ecostew says:

    David, I do want to see EROEI on pilot scale commercial scale.

  20. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Wilmot and David-

    Well we’ve certainly learned to distrust these folks the hard way, and we do rightfully distrust them.

    Which is why I think we should seize (nationalize) the coal fired power plants.

    Our current financial elites cannot be trusted with coal fired power plants, nor can they be trusted with our economy, as we’ve just seen. Maybe they can’t be trusted with deep injected CO2 either.

    On the other hand, what are the relative risks, in deep injection of CO2 versus a developing methane catastrophe?

    I’m not happy with CCS either, and would be glad to find another solution. The biochar made from algae idea of David’s is a really interesting idea. Biochar is a great way to store carbon because it is pure carbon, and if it could last long enough as a soil conditioner that would be tremendous. It might also be possible to mix it with a mineral like clay, and fire it at high temperatures like is done with carbon electrodes, and transform it into a long lasting rock like substance suitable for use as a concrete aggregate.

    Unfortunately, carbon is not the lowest thermodynamic state of carbon – carbonate is. So going from carbon to CO2 is exothermic, and going from CO2 to carbonate is exothermic. So we are asking people to bury a potentially valuable fuel. So, we would have to give people an economic incentive to bury the carbon rather than burn it, IMO, and carbon credits might be that incentive. But, we better make sure that we ruin the biochar as a fuel, lest people be tempted to dig it up and burn it.

    If we could just figure out how to do it economically, geological sequestration as a carbonate seems like the best answer.

    I’ve had some thoughts about talc, rather than olivine, as a rock for sequestration, because talc is soft and easy to mine while olivine is hard, and would have to be crushed. I’ve also seen patents in which chelating agents like EDTA can affect the kinetics of the chemical reactions and speed up dissolution of calcium and magnesium from rock. Unfortunately the sheet silicates like talc are less soluble than the chain silicates, and so rocks like talc and serpentine need to be heat treated as part of the process.

    Maybe we ought to just bite the bullet, and go for geological sequestration as a carbonate in a big way. That may be what the recent mapping efforts of calcium and magnesium silicates by the Obama administration are about.

  21. ecostew says:

    I do want to see an EROEI and CF on biochar relative to sustainability.

  22. David B. Benson says:

    Leland Palmer — About half the biochar applied as a soil conditioner re-enters the active carbon cycle with a few decades. Still, that is a wonderful use of it.

    Just now I’m working out the cost estimates for producing heating oil and biochar from algae, using the most primitive of techinques, only those which could be done immediately. The idea is that both products are to compete with the fossil equivalents on the world markets; it looks very promising but I’m not done yet; obviously this will have to be done on essentially worthless, but sunny, land.

    Once this technique, combined with others eliminates burning fossil coal then of course one turns to removing the excess carbon from the active carbon cycle. That is, unfortunately, likely to be some decades yet. Still, techniques other than simply deep burial in carbon landfills could well be advantageous and need to be thought out. But not by me, my plate is full.

    ecostew — In principle all energy requirements involved in growing the algae, pyrolysis, and local movement of product are met from the gas, oil and char created by the pyrolysis of algae. So EROEI is of no interest; meeting operating expenses, including return on investment, is.

    A serious issue yet to be explored is the high NPK requirement for quick growing algae. The NPK is in the approximately 4% ash component of the biochar, so if the ash resulting from buring is not returned to the algae farm, an alternate supply is required. Have you looked into the prices of typical NPK farm fertilizers recently?

    I have no idea what “CF on biochar relative to sustainability” means.

  23. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi again David B. Benson-

    Biochar is a wonderful idea, I think, and I don’t want to be excessively critical of it. I think it is likely a big part of the solution, partially because it is so low tech and accessible to people in the developing world. It’s certainly worth doing, and doing in a big way, I think, so long as it is combined with conservation and replanting, or like you say, gotten from algae. So – full speed ahead on biochar, I think. Even if part of the carbon from it does get back in the atmosphere in a few decades, the carbon came from the atmosphere in the first place, and so it is still carbon negative.

    It’s certainly worth doing, I think.

    But we either need to shut the coal plants down or convert them to something else, hopefully something at least carbon neutral. If we don’t do this, the coal plants will overwhelm everything else. When James Hansen called them “factories of death” he was absolutely right, I think.

    Because I believe that other options are not big enough and synergistic enough, I am going to keep pushing for Biomass/CCS, as a stopgap until true geological sequestration as a carbonate can be accomplished.

    Good luck with your biochar stuff, and best wishes, for you and for us all.

    I’m going to be working on a high carbon concrete aggregate, and if anything exciting happens, I’ll let you know.

  24. David B. Benson says:

    Leland Palmer — Thank you.

  25. ecostew says:

    Pursuing biochar to mitigate AGW, while sustaining the long-term health of soils, is not grounded in peer-reviewed science. It may be worse than corn grain ethanol – we need the science before proclaiming it part of the solution.

  26. Leland Palmer says:

    Our system of peer reviewed science needs some public review, I think. Like most American institutions during the Bush years, it was seriously warped by political, pressure, and our system of science has always been warped by commercial interests.

    So, these days, I tend to Google the authors of the papers that interest me, and find out if they have any obvious conflicts of interest.

    Consider this list of papers by Exxon scientists:

    I don’t have the time to go through them, to understand which ones are honest and which ones are deceptive. So, I just ignore them. Because of the obvious conflict of interest, I figure they come from a bad source of information, and I accept no information from such a source, peer reviewed or not.

    It wasn’t really science, peer reviewed or not, that got us into the ethanol from corn mess, by the way. That appeared to be pure corporate influence and money to fund lobbying efforts that got that past Congress.

    Other papers, which appear to me to be revolutionary and obviously at least qualitatively correct, get hung up in the peer review process for years. Read’s paper “Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage (BECS): a Sequential Decision Approach to the threat of Abrupt Climate Change” is still hung up in the peer review process, since 2003, although other papers that say roughly the same thing have made it through the process.

    It appears that our peer reviewed science has let us down by vastly underestimating the pace and severity of global warming. Each model seems to show a more extreme prediction than the previous one. It appears that normal scientific caution, the inherent complexity of the possible feedbacks into the system, and the effect of corporate influence have led to a vast underestimation of the problem.

    Biochar appears to me to be worth pursuing “by the light of reason” because it puts carbon back into the ground, and because terra preta soils have had what appears to be a benign effect on their ecosystems over a thousand years.

    When I solve an analytical problem in the lab, I don’t wait for a peer reviewed paper. I reason from first principles, try to logic my way through the problem, try lots of things in the hope something will work, indulge in plagiarism without shame, screw up a lot, and cheerfully admit error.

    At this point, we have to try a lot of different things and hope that some of them work.

  27. The Water Research Foundation just announced the launch of an information resource dedicated to the impact of climate change on water.

    “The site,, will be a “one-stop shop” for water utilities and the public seeking information about this rapidly changing topic. The site is part of the Foundation’s sustained, multi-year effort to evaluate the impact of climate change on water and help solve the challenges it poses to our nation’s water suppliers.”