Friday, 18 May 2012

The great turn on

Yesterday (Thursday 17th May) morning at ten, in a steel container on the edge of the Tralee Bay Caravan site in Argyll (see left), a momentous experiment got underway. For several weeks, a team of engineers had been drilling a directional well from the site through several hundred metres of bedrock and into the sediment under the bay. Now, cylinders of carbon dioxide had been connected to the well liner and the process has begun to bubble carbon dioxide through the sediments into the overlying marine ecosystem.

This seems like a crazy idea at first sight; a lot of public money spent to expose a tennis court-sized piece of the bottom of Ardmucknish Bay to the gas that it responsible for acidifying the oceans and contributing to climate change. But this little patch of sea floor may help to decide whether or not we use ‘Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)’ as one way of reducing the impact of our carbon dioxide emissions on the Earth’s climate and on our seas.

Carbon capture and storage is a technique to refill depleted oil wells with compressed and liquefied carbon dioxide. The engineering has already been tested and cost/benefit studies made but serious questions remain: How permanent is the storage and what will happen if the storage wells or pipelines begin to leak? Geologists and engineers can work out the risk of failure (we already know this to be rather low) but, as yet, there is no credible evidence of likely ecosystem consequences of a leak. It is really not safe to implement CCS if we don’t have the answer to the question and this is why the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the Crown Estates and others have invested in running this experiment. Over the next few weeks, a lot of scientific ingenuity, mainly from SAMS, the Plymouth Marine Lab, the British Geological Survey and others, will be poured into getting an answer.

Does this mean we are supporters of CCS? The answer is that we are neither supporters nor detractors; we see this as a legitimate test of a potential tool for mitigating the damage we are causing to the planet from our huge carbon dioxide emissions. There are other tools in the box too: renewable energy, nuclear energy, energy efficiency, localism, geo-engineering; all these need dispassionate scrutiny and evaluation from the perspective of costs and benefits including the costs to our stock of natural capital (see my last blog) and the relationship to human values. Some may prove to be unacceptable, some may provide a temporary relief and others may offer longer-term solutions. A careful evaluation that examines ‘hidden’ as well as obvious tangible costs and benefits is bound to provide some surprises and will certainly cause us to question some of the fundamental assumptions of many policymakers regarding the economic model that our society is following.

Perhaps this may sound like scepticism; I hope not - we are focussing on healthy enquiry. A rather positive article about our CCS experiment appeared in the Daily Mail; comments on the online version included the view that the whole thing is a waste of public money because there is no relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and our climate. This illustrates the difference between scepticism and denial. Sceptics have actually been helpful in driving our own inquiry and ensuring scientific rigour. We know more about the influence of solar cycles for example thanks to the insistence of the sceptics that this might be an important factor and we have to thank them for it. As a result, we now know that solar cycles have triggered global-scale events in the past but that their contribution to contemporary warming is far less than humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases. One would hope that at some point, most of them accept the weight of evidence and we can move on to other pressing questions – because there are so many uncertainties in knowledge that science can help to reduce. But some, occasionally with vested interests, raise the drawbridge and prefer to enter into the obscure realm of denial. Then sometimes, the whole thing gets very nasty indeed.

We should not be afraid of conducting socially and environmentally responsible experiments in the natural environment as well as in laboratory conditions. Lack of evidence from experimental sites is also delaying the development of a meaningful network of marine protected areas. The pace of global change is quickening (and I refer to biodiversity and habitat loss as well as climate change) and we need a short, medium and longer term strategy to deal with it.

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