Saturday, November 19, 2011

Carbon Rapture and Porridge

Phil Burpee, Columnist

Our MLA, the Honourable Evan Berger, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, has recently assured us that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is set to become a vanguard technology in the ongoing effort to curb the introduction of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), into the atmosphere. This is refreshing, not because CCS is a particularly admirable concept, but rather in that a member of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, and a Minister of the Crown to boot, is coming out on the record as declaring that there might actually be a problem with atmospheric tinkering   -  well, more like bludgeoning. Mr. Berger's comments in relation to CO2 release would actually seem to indicate an at least tacit acceptance of certain elements of climate change science. For CO2 is indeed a pernicious bugbear when it comes to cranking the atmosphere out of whack.

Yet, the Minister uses some coy language in his information release (Pincher Creek Voice, Oct. 24,  2011). He advises us that CO2 gas comes from many sources  -  ..."decay of plant and animal matter, fires and even our breathing. It is also produced by burning fossil fuels (italics mine)." So, here is the political hook. Burning fossil fuels is offered as almost an afterthought, following on compost, digestion, dead dogs, barbecues, etc., not to mention that pesky business of breathing. Of course, I do not suggest that the Minister operates on the same level as the sort of climate-change deniers that currently afflict Republican hopefuls in the U.S.A. But it is telling that his choice of culprits for excess emissions leaves burning of fossil fuels to the last, well behind naturally-occurring sources. This is, with apologies, a smokescreen. Giving the impression that our energy combustion habits are in any way incidental to the overall problem is not helpful. It is a self-serving ploy for a government that consistently fails to put in place either appropriate legislation or sufficiently comprehensive regulatory safeguards to properly address this most compelling environmental issue of the day.

Let's set some parameters and look at some stats. First  - where does the CO2 in fossil fuels come from? It comes from plants. For millions and millions of years plants have been soaking up CO2 out of the atmosphere, extracting the carbon to make their structure, then kicking out the oxygen as waste. The bones of a tree are made out of the air. That's how it came to be that we, as animals, could breathe and use that oxygen to fire the combustion processes that enliven our blood. But that carbon has been locked up in coal and oil and gas, plant residues, until we burn and release it, whence it recombines with oxygen and reforms CO2.  Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S. allows us to monitor CO2 levels  in the atmosphere from 1958 to the present. These readings have been taken from 11,000 feet up on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, as it is one of the most remote sites on the planet and therefore unlikely to be affected by local variables such as industry or forest fires. These are mean averages owing to seasonal global fluctuations with the coming and going of foliage in the northern hemisphere. As of October 2011, the parts-per-million (ppm) CO2 content of the atmosphere was pegged at 388.92 ppm. This stems from a base-rate reading in 1958 of somewhere below 320 ppm. Not only must we be concerned with the overall increase in levels, but also realize that the annual rate of increase has more than doubled since records began. There is widespread debate, but general consensus has it that 360 ppm is the threshold beyond which warming of the atmosphere begins to accelerate and become self-compounding - ie. no longer reversible. We can therefore indeed assume that platitudes and monkey-business will no longer suffice.

There are somewhere in the vicinity of 375,000 oil and gas wells in Alberta  -  documents are too fragmentary to know the exact number. In excess of 100,000 of these are inactive wells which have not been properly reclaimed -  and of these, over 20,000 have been inactive for more than 10 consecutive years, according to a paper produced for the 2010 Alberta Institute of Agrologists Conference (Agriculture, Food and the Environment, March 17, 2010). In fact, over 100 new wells are drilled in Alberta every day. These range from a few hundred metres to several thousand in depth. The Alberta Ministry of Environment itself cites the scope of the problem in these graphs.

Wells Drilled, Abandoned and Reclaimed

Trend: Deteriorating
     And so, if the Government of Alberta cannot even manage to keep track of an ever-widening gap between active and certifiably abandoned oil and gas wells, then how exactly does it propose to successfully monitor millions of tons of carbon dioxide pumped into an increasingly perforated landscape, with new holes being poked in it to the tune of three thousand every month? Add to this the sobering prospect of leakage, as has been a source of considerable concern at the flagship IEA Weyburn-Midale Carbon Capture and Storage Project in Saskatchewan. A controversial report by Paul Lafleur of Petro-Find Geochem, commissioned after complaints from area retired farmers Cameron and Jane Kerr about foaming water and dead animals around their farm, determined that there were indeed elevated levels of CO2 in certain areas.

     These findings are currently under dispute. However, only about one twentieth of the 100+ square mile field has been monitored - this with a project backed by the governments of both Saskatchewan and Canada, as well as the petroleum industry itself. To date, a comprehensive and universally agreed-upon system of monitoring has yet to be implemented. And this field is also distinguished by the use of high-pressure CO2 injections to drive out previously unavailable oil reserves - a process known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). The Government of Alberta has dumped mega-bucks into both CCS and EOR, hoping against hope that they can avoid having to slow down, even a little bit, on the current and anticipated levels of hydrocarbon extraction in our province. It's worrisome.

It is ominous that Minister Berger's ministry is now known as Agriculture and Rural Development. If the development in question is anything like what we've seen under Sustainable Resource Development (SRD), then we can expect trouble. Here's what I think is happening. Mr. Berger's old boss, Ted Morton, is now Minister of Energy. His job is to oversee the advancement of the energy sector in the province. So, here's what Ted says to Evan over coffee: -  "Evan, I've got about eleventeen gazillion tons of CO2 to get rid of. I want you to convince all those rubes out there that it's a good idea to pump it under their fields and rangelands. Tell them it's safe, reliable and for the good of all Albertans. OK?"

They say that CO2 intoxication makes you bleary, confused and dreamy before it asphyxiates you. We should be wary then. If we start to see large numbers of country folk wandering around in a delirium, and having to be institutionalized, then we'll know something's up - especially if they're no longer allowed food you have to chew for fear of choking.  But by then it may be too late. 'Rural Development' will have cleared the countryside of its bothersome inhabitants, who will have been shuffled off into camps where they will cluster bleakly together, confused and drooling, harmless now, with their carbon rapture and porridge.

Maybe we should change our new tourist slogan to something more to the bone: -
"Don't forget to hold your breath!"

Phil Burpee
November 19, 2011



  1. Speaking truth to power, good on you Phil!!

  2. Patti Runions27/11/11

    Tell it like it is, man! As usual, you speak with clarity and might! Your eloquent and insightful translation of 'politicalese' leaves me asking many questions, like how do these guys get elected? Surely, we the people, will not stand for such blatant manipulation. Will we?


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