It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Carbon Sequestration

Vis Grist, Ceruleus/Sir Oolius (yet another Canadian! interesting, the prominence of Canadians on this turf...) hoists the coal companies on their own petard (whatever that means), finding a quote from a coal guy that
the value of carbon sequestration is political: n.b. it is not technological or economic.

There is opposition to power generation systems that emit CO2 as waste (this is similar to opposition to nuclear power systems that emit radioactive waste). A response to the opposition is needed until the AGW scare is ended. And claims of carbon sequestration (cs) provide that needed response although everybody knows cs would be too expensive for it to be used.
Monsieur Oolius goes on to argue that this is "what the coal industry really thinks". This is a deep and a dangerous fallacy. The coal industry has no mind. It thinks nothing. People who work in the coal industry have ideas. Many think that, all else equal, a 50% rise in the per watt-hour price of coal is a non-starter.

Of course, that person neglects the extrnalities in his calculations, so gets it terribly wrong, but it doesn't matter. As long as they keep capitulating on political grounds, we get closer to having someplace to put the carbon, which is the best possible outcome, better even than wind or solar because it leaves the world with fewer enemies.

Business executives see the world through a time-discounted-value-of-money window. The rest of us see the world as something formerly permanent and sacred, suddenly rendered transient and tawdry. The gap cannot be bridged head on.

The 50% rise per unit energy cost envisioned is tiny compared to the alternatives we face. The fact that the quoted coal exec can't see that is simultaneously bizarre and totally to be expected. He's wrong though. CS is a big win for him. Energy demands will not go away any time soon, and anyone in a position to produce sustainable energy will be in a winning position.

If the coal interests can get over their cultural biases against environmental protection and environmentalists can get over their resentment toward coal, we can make progress. Eventually the coal people will understand that the world as a whole is in need of protection. Eventually environmentalists will understand that we can't support the whole world on a preindustrial economy. Eventually a political deal will be struck. The question is when to compromise and when to be a purist.

(A similar argument goes for conventional mining over strip mining, a point which was horribly lost in recent regulatory retreats in the US.)

A rise in cost combined with a rise in general well-being is a tradeoff the society will eventually make if it is to survive at all. The coal interests will either adapt to this or be left out of the mix. I think in the end everyone will be surprised to see how coal can make a positive contribution.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think how we feel about today's coal people or for that matter about today's environmentalists is not really a big issue. We need every resource we can get to get us through the population crunch without a population crash and/or a terrible degradation of the earth. Coal without sequestration is poison, but coal with sequestration is a resource.

Coal is not anybody's enemy, for all the nasty history of the people who have made money from it. Coal is a dumb rock. We have lots of it and we need lots of it, we just can't be so 19th century about how we do it anymore.

Sequestration developed for coal has an extra, very very large benefit. Sequestration can then be applied to other carbon-burning plants. Combined with biofuel plants, sequestration can actually provide a net draw-down of atmospheric CO2 at an energy profit.

We very very much need this trick to work, and we need to work existing financial and political interests to make it happen.

Like Itzhak Rabin (I think) said, "You don't sit down to peace talks with your friends".


David Roberts said...

Michael, I respond here.

Fergus said...

Two thoughts:
It seems not enough people are getting the message that economics (or money) is a part of the problem; in an attempt to rationalise out of the coal option, DR is doing what many others have done; challenge it with the known preferred measure of desirable outcome. As a strategy, can can have value, if it can be demonstrated that the real costs of different options are competitive on the scales we are talking about, but even this has drawbacks. As a policy, it won't work.

Which leads me on to thought two: in 'A perfect Moral Storm' (Environmental Values, 2006), Stephen Gardiner uses the Prisoner's Dilemma as one tool in an analysis of the problems climate action/policy faces. One the one hand, everyone knows it would be better if we collectively reduced emissions/changed energy pathways, on the other, nobody sees the personal benefit in doing do. (Sorry for the awkward paraphrasing). If we persist in defining self-interest in terms of wealth or economic advantage, then we fall into the dilemma.

But the PD can be sidestepped by changing the definition of what represents self-interest. By almost any other measure than the economic, it cannot be established that it is in any nation's self-interest to continue to use fossil fuels until they run out.

Hope the point is clear...

Michael Tobis said...

Much followup on Grist to David's comments. Please follow his link and help me out. I am outnumbered.

Fergus said...

Your wish is my command. I'll keep an eye on the debate. :) Hopefully, my contributions won't reflect badly on you...

Marlowe Johnson said...

for those interested in comparing the costs of renewables with conventional power generation this site may be of interest: