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The Danger in Sequestering CO2

Henry Petroski’s column, “Normalizing Deviance” (Prism, December 2010) caught my attention. His thesis is that we regularly ignore engineering evidence that should have warned of a coming fault event. Such glossing over of risks happens not only in engineering. The recent worldwide recession, now declared “over” but still persisting in its effect on a majority of the population, is a case in point. The financial collapse was largely caused by unregulated financial institutions, which issued thousands of mortgages to ineligible people, then packaged them as “good investments” to other institutions. At the same time, the issuing institutions insured these questionable mortgages against payment default – anticipating a big return when (not if) the mortgages failed. And the government’s regulators failed to heed the warning signs.

I recently read an article in the Journal of Policy Engagement (Vol 2, No 6, December 2010, p. 15-19), “Carbon capture and storage: Technology, status and costs” by Rene Mangal, P.Eng, that caused me to consider whether the same failing can be found in efforts to protect the environment.

Mangal reported on efforts to capture potential “greenhouse gas” from combustion products from industry, especially CO2, and sequester this gas under ground. “The hope is that the buried CO2 will never surface again. Potential geologic storage sites include deep saline formations, depleted gas and oil reserves, enhanced oil recovery sites and un-mineable coal seams. Deep ocean storage would involve direct injection of liquid CO2 into the sea bed ... as a kind of CO2 lake.” In this way, one of the greenhouse gases would be reduced.

The further hope is that this cold high-pressure liquid CO2 would not be evaporated by the higher temperatures in the depths of the earth, that a CO2-lake in the ocean depths would not disturb the as-yet unknown life forms, and that any oil or gas site deposit would not fracture the rocks.

In the process, it seems to have gone unnoticed that by sequestering the CO2, the carbon is returned to fossil status, but oxygen (O2) is also removed from the atmosphere and deposited under ground. Over decades and centuries, this process would slowly deplete the limited life-sustaining oxygen content of the atmosphere.

To me, this is a case of “Normalizing Deviance,” and the result is likely to be that humanity either commits collective suicide by global warming, or alternatively commits collective suicide by oxygen depletion in the atmosphere. Can we find a better, more appropriate solution?


—W. Ernst Eder
Professor Emeritus, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Royal Military College of Canada

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