Friday, March 27, 2009

Environmental Debates Becoming Carbon Copies

Coal Power Station in Tampa FL
Discussions about methods for scrubbing contaminants from the atmosphere haven’t changed. They’re simply becoming louder and more frequent. Meanwhile, those who seem to have solutions in hand are running out of time to implement them.

Frustration with that inertia reached new highs when President Barack Obama floated a cap-and-trade scheme in the wake of a Congressional Budget Office projection that an economy-wide cap-and-trade program would generate at least $50 billion per year, but could reach up to $300 billion. Obama claims his version of a cap-and-trade program will reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. However this plan is getting stiff opposition.

What gets little attention is the fact greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have an upside. In fact, they find their way into the atmosphere through the natural carbon cycle. Christian Lastoskie, an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, pointed out that, without the heat-trapping ability of greenhouse gases, subzero temperatures and inhospitable conditions would render the Earth uninhabitable. However, there’s a threshold past which the process turns deadly. Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas has created alarming volumes of CO2—in the last 200 years, atmospheric CO2 has increased 27 percent. Automobile emissions get the most publicity, but 30 percent of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere originates from fossil-fuel fired power plants.

These carbon contaminants are a major cause of death, illness, and long-term environmental damage. They shorten lives, damage children’s development and growth, cause chronic illnesses and kill thousands of people indiscriminately. Yet debates about the solution to the problem have created more argument but little action.

The March 24 Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) public information session is one example. Those in attendance faced off over the construction of a $2.3 billion, 800-megawatt coal-fired power plant proposed for the existing Consumers Energy Karn-Weadock complex in Hampton Township, Michigan. DEQ officials claimed the plant’s emissions would have minimal effect on the environment and public health. Protestors disagreed vehemently.

The argument isn’t a new one in the State or elsewhere. However, no one has resolved the debate. But various potential solutions, including the Obama cap-and-trade plan, have emerged. and its Michigan student chapter have focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency technology as a means to eliminate atmospheric contamination and stimulate the economy, creating construction jobs and "long-term green collar career jobs."
Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is yet another approach that’s getting more attention. Lastoskie has been conducting research on this approach for years. “Carbon capture and sequestration strategies focus on locking away carbon dioxide, not preventing its creation,” he said. “But they'll be increasingly important as society makes a gradual transition to energy technologies that don't rely upon fossil fuels.”

One CCS strategy, geologic storage, involves capturing CO2 and sequestering it underground in places such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs or coal seams that can't be mined. If emissions remain at present levels, there's enough global geologic storage space to accommodate CO2 for at least the next century. But there are uncertainties, the biggest of which is leakage of the CO2 into the biosphere.

Researchers have developed other sequestration schemes, such as injecting captured CO2 into oceans. However, these investigations have been slow to get traction because of concerns about possible ecosystem damage.

Meanwhile, discussions continue. The atmosphere becomes increasingly poisonous. And no amount of debate seems to clear the air.

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