The purpose of this experiment is to study carbon dioxide sequestration. What?? Carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced when animals (including humans) exhale and is used by plants in photosynthesis. Unfortunately, it is also created by the combustion of fossil fuels (gas, oil, coal, etc), creating an huge excess of CO2 in the atmosphere, a major cause of global warming. One solution to this excess CO2 is to bury it. However, scientists can't just say burying, so they say sequestration.
There are three players in this experiment, and we need to look at all three.
- Rentech. We're all familiar with this company, which may build a coal-to-liquid fuel plant in Adams County. One problem with their process is that it produces huge amounts of CO2. Rentech intends to "capture" this CO2 and sell it to our next player.
- Denbury Resources Inc. This company, though headquartered in Texas, is the largest oil and natural gas operator in Mississippi. They specialize in enhanced (or tertiary) oil recovery (EOR), using CO2 to extract additional oil from oil fields. They own the largest EOR CO2 reserves east of the Mississippi, along with several oil fields, most of which are in Mississippi. Two of interest to us are the Cranfield oil field near Washington, where the experiment will take place, and the Lake St John field across the river. They are also building and buying pipelines that they use to transport their CO2 to their fields.
- Bureau of Economic Geology. This is a research unit housed at the University of Texas. One of its research projects is CO2 sequestration. They received $38 million from the Department of Entergy to study the process. They are working with Denbury and will use their CO2 and their Cranfield oil field.
This experiment is being presented as a tremendous benefit to the environment. This is reflected in the quotes in the Democrat, and the communications I have had with the Bureau's Director and Project Manager. However, this technique is not supported by environmentalists. Rather it is the baby of those who want to continue our addiction to fossil fuels.
As we all know, the Bush/Cheney administration is very supportive of fossil fuels. So it's no surprise that their Department of Energy would support this type of research. It's also no surprise that the University of Texas got the grant. The objectivity of the researchers at the Bureau can be seriously questioned by their refusal to discuss or admit any negative aspects at all. (In fact, some of the Bureau's own research has shown some of the problems with this technique.) It is also no surprise that this is being done in Mississippi. We are so poor that we'll take any industry regardless of its impact, we are so Republican that we'll support the current administration no matter what, and we're so uneducated that few people will even understand what's happening to them.
And there are serious concerns about this technique. First, injecting toxic gases under the ground in poor communities in order to continue reliance on fossil fuels as our energy source is just not good policy. A switch to sustainable, renewable energy and conservation is the rational long term solution to our global warming problem.
It's also not a feasible solution. Adding CO2 sequestration to a coal plant increases the energy it uses and the cost of its product. Every metric ton (M/T) of coal processed generates 3.7 M/T of carbon dioxide. Where are we going to bury all this stuff? Plus, it has to be transported by pipeline to an appropriate disposal location, and there aren't remotely enough sites available. It has to be compressed into a liquid before it's buried, using more energy. It has to be monitored forever for leaks. If the companies are not held liable for any disasters, as has been proposed, the taxpayers foot the bill. CO2 sequestration in nothing more than a delaying tactic for those who make their money with fossil fuels and don't care about the planet.
Finally, it's dangerous! Yes, CO2 occurs naturally, and yes, we use it safely in lots of products. BUT, only in safe proportions. CO2 in our air is around 375 ppm (parts per million). The maximum safe level of pure CO2 for healthy adults is 5000 ppm, and it's lower for infants, children, elderly, and those with cardiopulmunary problems. However, it's rarely pure - other gases are usually present. So in reality, at 2,000 ppm, people start getting sick. Miners use to bring a caged canary with them to work as a safety device, because it would die from carbon dioxide before humans. The CO2 being buried underground is compressed into deadly proportions and in massive amounts.
There are three lakes in the world (all in Africa) that have naturally occurring, concentrated CO2, but it stays at the bottom of the lakes and is generally not dangerous. However, in two of them, there were incidents that caused disruptions, and the CO2 escaped to the surface. In 1984, 37 people were killed, and in 1986 1700 were killed - along with thousands of animals. Additional thousands escaped, but suffered respiratory problems, lesions, and paralysis as a result of the gases. It took a while to figure out what happened, because they saw and smelled nothing.
CO2 kills because it is heavier than air and displaces air when released into the environment. When the gas is released, it stays close to the ground, displaces oxygen, and suffocates everything in its path.
So who will monitor that storage of CO2 for leaks? What happens when the Bureau finishes its experiment and when Cranfield sells its oil field? CO2 could also infiltrate our water and our soil, and we would never know. CO2 is odorless and colorless, so it could be escaping without anyone noticing. We may be getting sick and dying, but no one will know why.
So what can we do about this? Nothing. There's no law in Mississippi to protect us, and of course, Adams County has no zoning whatsoever, so they can do whatever they like. Politicians are going to just believe whatever these people tell them. Unless you're willing to move, all you can do is pray. Oh, and be sure to tell your children, in case the leak comes after you're gone - so they'll know what is happening.
I would like to thank Jane Gardner for her help with the research for this article.