Carbon Trapping: Pumping the Oceans Full of Malarky

08/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've heard a few cockamamie ideas for solving pollution problems. My favorite came in response to a comment I made about the Pacific garbage patch, now larger than Texas across and deeper than anyone deigns imagine. "We'll just figure out a way to eject our garbage into the stratosphere," a friend told me. Was he a madman? Fearing his lunacy, I nodded and smiled but couldn't brush off my memory of various bits of satellite debris that have threatened to demolish parts of the Earth after having been recklessly shot into outer space in the name of science and politics. I imagined new apocalyptic films being made where human beings unite to save the planet from the smack of a trash asteroid. He might be smote by the very Starbucks cup he was holding.

A similarly grandiose proposal to that of ejecting our garbage into outer space has recently been condoned by the EPA. According to the Times article, "Rule Drafted for Carbon Trapping," a rule has been written by the organization to take the first steps at pumping carbon dioxide into the ground. (Scientists have also considered ejecting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I guess my friend's grandiose plan is inline with science after all.)

By compressing our polluted air into liquid, scientists hope to pump it down into the ground through carefully constructed storage tanks. According to the EPA, "Development of such a rule is essential before companies can build power plants that will capture and store their carbon dioxide to limit the buildup of global warming gases."

This plot demonstrates the risks of scientific advancement and is at the crux of many of the environmental problems we currently face: find a way that pollution can be re-routed to make room for more polluting power plants. What's next? Am I going to hear that L. Ron Hubbard has made a deal with the Almighty and that I can pay for Carbon Footprint salvation? Then I shall be absolved of all my responsibility to Mother Earth. Wouldn't it be nice if we could outsource our environmental accountability?

However much scientists can hypothesize and anticipate, the planet is a great mystery with reactions unforeseen. Since carbon trapping has never occurred on the scale that is being presented -- which demands that carbon dioxide be turned into a liquid, buoyant enough to remain suspended though submerged below the ocean floor -- some analysts have expressed concern that the gas may not behave as anticipated. What would this mean? It would mean cleaner air for us, but the possibility of contaminated water systems and oceans filled with viscous carbon dioxide.

According to Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the EPA, both well owners and operators would have to monitor the chemical as it was pumped underground: "A cornerstone of this rule is that the carbon dioxide stays where it is put, and not leak or be released to the surface." If any liquid were to leak out, the pumping would promptly be stopped, he explained.

This statement introduces two red flags: first, that Mr. Grumbles is himself wary of the high risks of carbon dioxide leakage. Imagine the concentrated chemical squeezing out of the byways and rising up into the bottom of the ocean. The ocean makes up 75% of the Earth's surface and is home to an estimated 20,000 species: is the risk worth the extra smokestacks that can be built as a result?
Grumbles' statement illuminates the most terrifying prospect of all: that monitoring the reaction of carbon dioxide will be in the hands of those whose best interest is served by ignoring leaks or mishaps. I'm not suggesting that the well owners and operators will necessarily overlook potential complications, but people are often inclined to see what they want to see -- and to ignore what they want to ignore. Are we willing to put the fate of the ocean into the hands of a few people for whom carbon trapping is a vested interest?

Before we find ourselves holding a wolf by the ears, let's consider whether this quick-fix to our carbon dioxide dilemma is the right way to go, especially when, in lieu of making people more responsible for their emissions, this proposal makes room for more pollutants -- and the potential for even less accountability.

I should mention that carbon trapping is something people seem to know relatively little about: if you are a particular expert or feel that you can defend the process, please comment.