April 22, 2022

Since today is Earth Day, it is appropriate to address an article in my local newspaper on the battle around Carbon Capture.  Ascension Parish is part of the 85-mile (137-kilometer) span between New Orleans and Baton Rouge officially called the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor, but more commonly known as Cancer Alley.  The region’s air quality is some of the worst in the United States, and in several places the risk of cancer is much higher than considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.  This is also where a US$4.5 billion plant designed to capture carbon and make clean-burning hydrogen fuel is slated to be built.  The plant will be operated by Air Products and Chemicals and is designed to capture airborne carbon emissions during production and put them safely underground.

When I looked online, I found Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the process of capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) before it enters the atmosphere, transporting it, and storing it (carbon sequestration) for centuries or millennia.  The CO2 is usually captured from sources like a coal-fired power plant, a chemical plant, or biomass power plant, and then stored in an underground geological formation.  The aim is to prevent the release of CO2 from heavy industry with the intent of mitigating the effects of climate change.  Although CO2 has been injected into geological formations for several decades, the long-term storage of CO2 is a relatively new concept.  CO2 can be captured directly from an industrial source using a variety of technologies, including absorption, adsorption, chemical looping, membrane gas separation or gas hydration.  As of 2020, about one thousandth of global CO2 emissions are captured by CCS and most projects are industrial.  A study in late 2020 by researchers from the University of California, San Diego, found over 80% of 39 projects that have sought to commercialize carbon capture and storage ended in failure.  The study cited lack of technological readiness as a top factor

Even if the technology was deployed successfully, several critics say the projects would pose threats to the public health of communities long plagued by air and water pollution.  First, any project that prolongs the life of an existing industrial facility presents additional environmental harm by extending the amount of time it pollutes a community.  Second, since carbon capture requires more energy to power equipment, it would result in more air pollution as the technology can only catch a portion of the facilities carbon emission.  Howard Herzog, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and pioneer of carbon capture and storage technology, disputed this in an interview with the AP.  But he acknowledged there is a risk in transporting and storing carbon.  At the point of capture, Herzog said, the technology poses a “very low” threat to public health. “There’s always a chance of some mishaps, but on the overall scale of chemical plants, (the technology) is fairly benign.”

THOUGHTS:  When I was researching a lead smelter in Utah, I tried to interview workers at a plant that had closed two decades earlier.  I was only able to find three workers who still lived in town, and they told me their friends had all died long ago.  One of the three died of cancer not long after my interview.  What I realized was the workers had been exposed to lead for long periods of time.  While lead poisoning was not listed as the cause of death, exposure to lead initiated the mortality.  The EPA determined that “prior protections” failed to prevent over 2,200 chemical accidents in the US during a 10-year period, including about 150 incidents per year that caused “reportable harm”.  “Fairly benign” seems to be a relative term if it happens to you.  Act for others.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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