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Bury your problems

If you’ve got a big problem with no easy answers, a tempting solution would be to dig a deep hole…

By Ian Bickis , in Blogs This Business of the Environment , on January 29, 2008

If you’ve got a big problem with no easy answers, a tempting solution would be to dig a deep hole and bury it, hoping to never see your pesky problem again.

It might not seem like much of a solution, but it sure is gaining popularity in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And despite some serious limitations, it might actually work.

The idea is to capture greenhouse gases as they emerge from the smokestacks, and then pump them down into various underground chambers such as empty oil fields or coal beds. It’s commonly called carbon sequestration, or carbon capturing.

This is no longer just an idea. Always edgy Saskatchewan already has one of the largest such operations going. Algeria (through British Petrol) and Norway also have projects under way. Just yesterday Abu Dhabi announced a $4 billion sequestration project that will be able to capture a whopping 15 million tonnes of gas annually. It helps that the process will also ease oil extraction by pushing the oil up.

Alberta and the Canadian government are looking into large-scale projects, but the costs of the system quickly increase over greater distances. Where this will work best is with the few major emitters in Canada, like the Sundance coal-fired power plant in Alberta that burns 250 rail cars worth of coal every day.

Carbon capturing will have many objecting on principle, that it’s not really solving the problem. But the science is fairly sound, and coupled with conservation it can help reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Crucially, it has the greatest value when tackling the worst polluters where there are few other opportunities to reduce emissions. With China opening a new coal plant every week or so, we need some real solutions; stopping growth just isn’t going to happen any time soon.

There are many unanswered questions, and a need to tread carefully, but maybe those ostriches are on to something.