Why Literally Burying Our Problems May Be the Way to Solve Climate Change

Out of sight, out of mind?

Unsplash / Daniel Jensen

The United States as a country hasn’t exactly been a leader when it comes to infrastructure since at least about the 1800s. But as a country, we’re also the biggest carbon polluter in history. So it’s probably pretty important to take a new peer-reviewed plan to store 30 million metric tons of the stuff in underground tunnels seriously.

This new infrastructure plan comes courtesy of Princeton researchers Ryan W. J. Edwards and Michael A. Celia, who explained to Inverse how it could double CO2 emission capture in the next 6 years. They envision a pipeline running from the emission-rich plains of the Midwest to oil fields in Texas, where the CO2 can be put to work and then stored deep underground via carbon capture. With the tax credit born from the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act and low-interest loans, a project of this size is finally a potential reality.

Midwestern ethanol refineries are often far from carbon dioxide pipelines. Edwards and Celia's network would bridge the gap for the 43 million metric tons of CO2 produced by these refineries annually.

Ryan Edwards, Princeton University 

How Does Carbon Capture Work?

Usually burying your problems in the sand isn’t the healthiest approach. But when it comes to tackling carbon dioxide emissions, out of sight, out of mind might actually be a smart strategy. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is three-step technological process: capture the CO2, transport it to an injection site, then inject it into an appropriate geological formation, typically a few kilometers below the surface. Storing the CO2 underground in porous rock helps avoid the buildup of greenhouse gas on the surface. We shouldn’t run out of space anytime soon, as the Department of Energy estimates that the U.S. has anywhere from 600 to 6,700 years worth of storage space.

The U.S. has a bounty of potential carbon dioxide storage sites, aka sequestration sites. One or more layers of cap rock are required to properly trap the CO2 underground.

U.S. Department of Energy, NATCARB

Edwards and Celia’s potential pipeline doesn’t route to oil fields only for their ideal geological formations. Oil moguls have reason to celebrate too. Before being stored, the CO2 can be used for enhanced oil recovery, a method of extracting oil that would increase the current 40 percent yield from wells by 15 percent.

“This can be a win-win for climate and domestic energy security” Edwards explains. Plus, the amount of CO2 produced by the extra oil doesn’t outstrip the CO2 saved by CCS, so the net result still favors the environment.

What it Takes to Build the Pipeline

NASA tells us how dire climate change can be and the Paris Agreement tells us what benchmarks the globe needs to reach. We’ve got urgency and we’ve got goals. Even the technology, CCS, has been around since the 1970s. The latest tax credit that rewards storage and reuse of carbon dioxide is what allows a plan like the pipeline to exist. (To qualify for these tax credits, construction of the carbon capture facilities must start by 2024, according to Edwards.) By marrying environmental goals with the interests of the oil industry, the US takes teams that are usually pitted against one another and gets them onto the same side.

The only hitch? A plan like this would rely low-interest loans from the government and public support. Large-scale infrastructure plans with the cooperation of the government have succeeded before, like building the Interstate Highway System. (And unlike the interstate, the robust pipeline likely wouldn’t deal with the maintenance issues roads often do.)

“The biggest thing I learned is how critical infrastructure is,” Edwards tells Inverse. “Governments have always led and financed these [projects], and there’s a good reason why.”

Another drawback includes the source of emissions. The Midwest’s refineries rely on corn ethanol, which neither environmental or oil industries particularly like due to price, fertilizer needs, and emissions levels. But the high concentration of CO2 from the refineries make it a prime “gateway” source to dive in, before moving to other sources such as ammonia or hydrogen.

Regardless of the source, the payoff of the pipeline is tempting. When functional, the storage network can prevent 30 million metric tons of CO2 deposits from entering the atmosphere, which is has the equivalent effect of 6.5 million people waking up one day and suddenly deciding to stop driving a car. Even if half funded, the network could store 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

The use of fossil fuels won’t disappear overnight. Global demand for oil is projected to continue at least through 2050, according to Edwards. But to make the jump from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the political, technological and economic stars now align to give the U.S. a chance to stop digging itself into a hole and instead fill it up — with CO2.

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