Most Americans are now convinced that climate change is real because dramatic evidence keep piling up – searing heat waves, multiyear droughts, record-setting wildfires, unprecedented tornadoes and Biblical floods.
Furthermore, there’s now widespread agreement among scientists that humans are causing these problems by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), thus emitting carbon dioxide (CO2) gas, which acts like a blanket, warming the planet.
One obvious solution: use fossil fuels far more efficiently (doing the same work with less energy), thus drastically reducing CO2 emissions. Wherever we use lights, heat or motors, we could greatly enhance efficiency.
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Furthermore, efficiency could improve quickly – the National Academy of Sciences said recently we could cut the nation’s energy use 20 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030 using technologies that are available and affordable today. David Goldstein has shown how we could cut national energy use more than 80 percent in ten to 20 years, creating many thousands of good jobs while saving trillions of dollars in reduced fuel costs – enough to fund a modern, renewable energy system.
One crucial caveat: the people who would benefit least from efficiency are the purveyors of fossil fuels – they’d sell less product, reducing their profits. For them, efficiency is a threat, not an opportunity.
The Fossil Fuel Industry’s “Shock Doctrine” Response
In response, fossil fuel corporations have devised their own plan to mitigate global warming while burning more and more coal, oil and natural gas. Their plan is called “carbon capture and sequestration,” or CCS, for short.
In a nutshell, the plan would capture CO2 as a gas, pressurize it into a liquid, pipe it to a suitable location and then pump it a mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. You may not have heard of it, but the CCS plan is chugging along worldwide.
A major stumbling block to the CCS plan is public skepticism. Yes, CO2 is the familiar fizzy in beer and soda (and yes, you exhale CO2 as you breathe), but when CO2 gets loose in liquid form, it creates an invisible puddle on the ground, which excludes oxygen, rapidly killing everything in its path.
A rare natural eruption of CO2 from the bottom of Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 asphyxiated 1,746 people in their sleep. Few people want to live anywhere near a huge, volatile buried puddle of liquid CO2 that might one day leak.
Humans have no experience monitoring anything for millennia. If leakage did occur after, say, 300 years, who would be responsible for trying to stem the leaks? If liquid CO2 migrated sideways below ground and contaminated a town’s water supply, who would pay? If CO2 bubbled out of the ground and killed even a few people, who would be liable?
Council of State Government’s “Trojan Horse” Carbon Sequestration Model Bill
When most informed journalists, liberal advocacy groups and informed citizens think about corporate lobbyist produced “model bills” passed to legislators in statehouses nationwide, the first “Trojan Horse” that comes to mind is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
ALEC, though, as demonstrated in a multipart series, is merely one of many “Other ALECs.” These groups share key strands of ALEC’s DNA and do yeoman’s work pushing the “corporate playbook” in the states.
Fossil fuel corporations have utilized one of the “Other ALECs,” the Council of State Governments (CSG) to promulgate a model state law – based on one written by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission – to undercut public opposition and limit liability.
The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission “is a multi-state government agency that promotes the conservation and efficient recovery of domestic oil and natural gas resources,” according to its web site. “IOGCC is a leader and a driver of national oil and gas policy.”
Put more bluntly: this model bill was written by and for the oil and gas industry.
The model, or piece of “suggested state legislation,” as CSG has coined it, calls for many things, none of them ecologically friendly, to put it bluntly. A bullet-point list puts the bill’s dictates into necessary context:
- It gives CCS project operators the power of eminent domain to seize private property (including surface rights, subsurface rights and all “property interests necessary and useful for the purpose of constructing, operating, or modifying a storage facility and the necessary infrastructure … [including pipelines]”). In short, if your home, farm, business or water supply stands in the way, you’ll have to move. [Section 8]
- It collects a fee on each ton of buried CO2 to create a Carbon Dioxide Geologic Storage Trust Fund, until the Fund totals $5 million, at which point fee collection ceases. The commissioner of conservation can draw $750,000 from the Trust Fund each year to administer the law. The commissioner can also use the Fund for monitoring and surveillance of site operations, repairing mechanical leaks at the site, plugging abandoned wells and buying insurance and legal services.
- If the Fund drops below $4 million, fees can be collected again to build it back up to $5 million. Once burial operations cease and the site is declared closed, fee collection ends for good. [Section 10(C)(1)]
- Ten years after CO2 burial ceases, the state takes ownership of the whole shebang. Everyone associated with the CCS operation (owner, operator, CO2 contributor) is absolved of all liability, any performance bonds are returned with interest and they can all skip town without looking back.
- Notably, when the state takes ownership of the large underground puddle of CO2, the state itself assumes no responsibility. Responsibility resides exclusively with the Trust Fund.
Section 9(A)(3) reads, “continued monitoring of the site, including remediation of any well leakage, shall become the principal responsibility of the Carbon Dioxide Geologic Storage Trust Fund.” In English: the trust fund – with its assets capped at $5 million, plus interest – owns any and all trouble related to the CCS operation for the next 4,000 years. If anyone wants to sue for damages, they’ll have to sue the trust fund.
In case there’s any doubt about this, Section 9(A)(4) reads, “It is the intent of this Section that the state shall not assume or have any liability by the mere act of assuming ownership of a storage facility….”
If anyone sues the trust fund for “non-economic damages” (meaning things like physical and emotional distress, disfigurement, pain or other loss of the enjoyment of life caused by an injury, including sterility, physical impairment and so forth) – damages are capped at $250,000 per incident. If the harm includes wrongful death, or permanent and complete loss of mental or physical function, then damages are capped at $500,000. [Section 9(B)(1)]
- If the site leaks or fails and “restoration” is required, the state is not liable in any way. Only monies from the Trust Fund can be used for restoration and if the Trust Fund is exhausted the state “shall not have any liability or responsibility” to spend state monies on the problem. [Section 9(C)] At that point, perhaps, grassroots outrage could provoke federal action and a bailout by taxpayers.
If the CCS plan unfolds as the fossil corporations intend, then the CCS industry will be huge – far larger than the petroleum industry is today. A CCS industry large enough to bury a fourth of current human CO2 emissions would require an infrastructure twice the size of today’s global petroleum industry.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the model, or versions close to it, have already passed in states including Illinois, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Déjà Vu All Over Again?
Unfortunately, the CCS plan seems like déjà vu all over again.
In recent decades, the US industry has pumped roughly 120 billion tons of liquid toxic waste into the ground, hoping it will stay put forever. This is called “deep well injection” and it’s perfectly legal.
Recent investigative reports by Abrahm LustGarten of ProPublica, for example, have revealed, “Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep in the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation’s drinking water.”
Oversight and regulation are lax or nonexistent. LustGarten found that 150,000 wells are presently shooting industrial fluids thousands of feet below ground, but “scientists and regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.”
Would CCS be any different?
According to Harvard Professor Daniel Schrag, the fossil fuel industry’s CCS plan may bury one to two trillion tons of liquid carbon dioxide below ground this century. That’s eight to 16 times more liquid CO2 than the 120 billion tons of toxic waste already injected underground in the US.
During his investigation, LustGarten interviewed Mario Salazar, who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the US Environmental Protection Agency’s underground injection program. “In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted” by toxic waste, Salazar said.
The fossil industry’s CCS plan, using CSG as the “Trojan Horse,” seems certain to make such a dire prediction ever more likely to come true.