Climate Change stanford links carbon sequestration to earthquakes

Published on June 19th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


Carbon Sequestration’s Got an Earthquake Problem, Too

June 19th, 2012 by  

stanford links carbon sequestration to earthquakes

Fossil fuels seem to be running out of places to go. Back in March, officials in Ohio put new restrictions on the natural gas drilling method called fracking after seismologists linked it to earthquakes, and last Friday the National Research Council issued a report detailing the impact of conventional gas and oil drilling on seismic events, along with other underground activity including carbon sequestration. Now a whole new report focuses squarely on the risk of earthquakes from underground carbon sequestration. That apparently closes the door on what was supposed to be an effective way to manage greenhouse gas emissions… or does it?

Carbon in, carbon out…

The new report was prepared by Mark D. Zobackand and Steven M. Gorelick of the departments of Geophysics and Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford University. Aptly titled “Earthquake triggering and large-scale geologic storage of carbon dioxide,” it is a response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which in 2005 proposed underground carbon sequestration as a viable strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants and other industrial sources.

Unfortunately, it looks like this strategy could be a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease. According to the report, underground sequestration is highly likely to trigger earthquakes, which would crack open the formation and enable the carbon dioxide to leak out to the surface.

The problem, as identified by the working group, is that most rock formations under continental land masses are too brittle.

Their conclusion:

“Because even small- to moderate-sized earthquakes threaten the seal integrity of CO2 repositories, in this context, large-scale CCS is a risky, and likely unsuccessful, strategy for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”



Not the end for carbon sequestration

The report doesn’t rule out any underground storage, but it does suggest that appropriate sites are not as widespread as previously supposed.

One avenue of exploration is the use of depleted gas reservoirs. While not entirely risk-free, these formations once stored gas, so they could be more likely to have the potential for holding a firm seal.

This past January, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory reported that a demonstration gas reservoir project undertaken in Australia has been successful so far, but further study is needed before putting the practice into widespread use.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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  • on the riverbank

    We need to recycle the carbon. The tire industry uses millions of tons of Carbon Black. If some one can figure out a way to convert the CO2 into carbon black there would be a ready market for it. We have to understand that “throwing it away” is not a viable concept. There is no “away”.

    • Well, plants take CO2 from the air and can easily be turned into carbon black.  (They even give off energy in the process.)  Currently the cheapest way to sequester carbon appears to be to grow plant material and dump it in the deep ocean, or just cold water.  Alternatively the plant material can be turned into charcoal (biochar) and added to soil to improve its fertility.  It can also be used as a replacement for fossil fuels.  Or just growing plants where there aren’t currently any and leaving them there also locks up CO2 from the atmosphere. 

      While this can remove a considerable amount of CO2 from the atmosphere using land that currently isn’t used for food production or in combination with food production, it’s not practical to remove the vast amount of CO2 we currently add to the atmosphere.  Fortunately cheap solar power makes it economically painless to cut our emissions.  (Well, economically painless unless you own a fossil fuel power plant.)  Maybe we will end up with a situation where most energy is obtained from low emission sources, with carbon capture by plants and perhaps algae removing whatever emissions are left.

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