This post examines the ethical issues raised by geologic carbon storage, a somewhat promising but not yet fully proven potential solution to human-induced climate change.
Carbon capture and storage technologies are comprised of a variety of technologies for removing carbon dioxide from fuel combustion (capture) and storing the CO2 in reservoirs other than the atmosphere (e.g., by injecting the carbon dioxide into geologic formation for long-term storage instead of releasing it into the atmosphere). This post focuses on the questions arising from CO2 storage in geological reservoirs.
As more fully identified below, there are some open questions about some of the risks of geologic carbon storage. These issues are under consideration in numerous studies and demonstration projects around the world. Also, several governments around the world are in various stages of development of siting criteria to deal with at least some of these potential risks.
This post summarizes conclusions on this technology reached at a workshop of scientific experts, ethicists, policy makers, and members of civil society that took place in Rio de Janeiro on October 30 to November 1, 2007. The workshop was hosted by Petrobas (Petróleo Brasileiro S.A.), and co-sponsored by Brazilian Forum on Climate Change, the Graduate School of Engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the National School of Tropical Botany at the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro, and the Rock Ethics Institute at the Pennsylvania State University.
Although carbon dioxide has been successfully injected into geologic formations as part of oil and gas production and coal methane recovery for several decades, questions remain about the efficacy of this technique for long-term storage of carbon storage at the scale needed to be a significant solution to the problem of human-induced climate change. Although geologic carbon storage may be proven to effectively store CO2 at some sites under certain conditions, it may create unacceptable risks at other locations. In addition, even if geologic carbon storage is demonstrated to be an effective method of isolating CO2 liberated in fossil fuel combustion from the atmosphere, this technology may not be widely deployed if increased costs entailed by use of this sequestration method are much greater than other techniques for sequestering carbon. For this reason, even if the technology should proven to be reliable as a climate change mitigation device, the magnitude and frequency of this technology's future use are not yet known.
Climate change potentially raises enormous and unprecedented challenges for and threats to the human race. Among the challenges are numerous profound ethical questions for our species that arise for at least four reasons. One, those nations and people who are the major contributors to climate change are not the same as those who are most vulnerable to its impacts. Second, climate change impacts are potentially catastrophic. Third, to solve the climate change's threat, those who cause the problem need to consider the adverse impacts of climate change on people and their environment separated from them in time and space. Fourth, the solutions to climate change usually have potential harms and risks that must be considered through an ethical lens.
By ethics in this post, we mean the domain of inquiry that examines claims about what is right or wrong, obligatory or non-obligatory, or when responsibility attaches to human actions. An ethical analysis of geologic carbon storage examines claims made about whether and under what circumstances geologic carbon storage should be pursued as a solution to climate change. A proper ethical analysis of geologic carbon storage must begin with a description of known environmental, economic, and social impacts and risks of geologic carbon storage. For these reasons, an ethical analysis of this technology must be based upon current understandings of the harms, risks and benefits of this technology. If our scientific understanding of this technology changes, then our ethical conclusions may also change. Therefore, ethical conclusions reached in this post could be provisional. As there are numerous demonstration projects on carbon storage in various stages of development, it is likely that a better understanding of the risks from harm from geologic carbon storage will increase in the years ahead.
Each solution to climate change poses certain risks of harms. For example, deployment of large-scale biofuel production may make land unusable for other purposes, geo-engineering solutions often pose serious environmental risks, and even wind power may create risks to birds. Yet climate change raises such enormous and unprecedented challenges to the human race that the potential risks from particular climate change solutions must always be considered in relation to climate change's threats. It is also important to compare the potential harms of each climate change solution to the potential risks created by other climate change solutions. For these reasons, society needs to consider the ethical dimensions of climate change solutions from a comparative point of view, that is, the ethical dimensions of each solution to climate change must be compared both to ethical issues entailed by harms of business-as-usual use of fossil fuel and in comparison to ethical issues raised by other climate change solutions.
The following ethical issues are derived from current understandings of the risks of harm from geologic carbon storage:
- Ethical issues entailed by risks of releases of CO2 or other accidents that pose threats to the environment and people in the local vicinity of the carbon storage site or along feeder pipeline systems.
- Ethical issues entailed by long-term leakage of CO2 back into the environment.
- Ethical issues entailed by potential earthquake triggering by pressures from injected gases.
- Ethical issues that arise if the potential but unproven deployment of geologic carbon storage becomes the basis for delays in greenhouse gas emissions reductions through other means.
- Procedural and institutional ethical issues.
II. Releases of CO2 that create risks to local populations or accidents associated with carbon storage operations.
A. Nature of the risks
Risks from geologic carbon storage include serious risks to local populations near the injection site or along feeder pipelines if CO2 above certain concentrations leaks from injection wells, pipelines, and other elements of the system. These releases could be lethal to exposed populations. In addition, if sites selected for carbon storage do not provide adequate caprock isolation of injected gases from groundwater systems, contamination of groundwater near the storage site is also a potential risk.
Risks of harm to local populations from toxic doses of CO2 can be minimized by facility design, engineering controls, monitoring of both injection pressures and leakage, adaptive management techniques and careful site selection. (For discussion of minimizing risks of groundwater contaminations see discussion of long-term leakage below.) For instance, carbon storage sites located in places where there are no potentially exposed populations above or near the site or near feeder pipelines virtually eliminate the risks of exposures to people to toxic concentrations of CO2.
Increases in dissolved CO 2 concentration that might occur as CO2 migrates from a storage reservoir to the surface may alter groundwater chemistry, potentially affecting shallow groundwater used for potable water and industrial and agricultural needs. (IPCC. 2005) Dissolved CO2 forms carbonic acid, altering the pH of the solution and potentially causing indirect effects, including mobilization of (toxic) metals, sulphate or chloride; and possibly giving the water an odd odor, color or taste.
In the worst case, contamination might reach dangerous levels, excluding the use of groundwater for drinking or irrigation. For this reason, it is important to assure isolation of injected CO2 from any groundwater that may be used for human purposes.
Local interests in geologic carbon storage also can also be affected by the size of the impact of underground storage given the fact that large areas of geologic formations will be affected by injection of CO2 from large coal fired power plants. It is expected, for instance, that a large one megawatt coal fired power plant may affect 40 square miles in 10 years.
B. Ethical issues concerning risks to local populations and ecosystems.
Ethical issues raised by risks to local populations and ecological systems include:
- Proponents of geologic carbon storage projects have ethical duties to protect local populations from toxic doses of CO2 through adequate site selection, design, engineering, and monitoring controls;
- Geologic carbon storage proponents must assure adequate representation of local populations in site approval and design (See ethical procedural issues below);
- Geologic carbon storage proponents must assure adequate education of local populations about potential risks to local populations (See ethical procedural issues below);
- Governments responsible for geologic carbon storage site approval must insist upon adequate regulatory controls over project design and site selection criteria (See ethical procedural issues below);
- Geologic carbon storage site approval procedures must place the burden of proof on carbon storage project proponents to demonstrate that a proposed carbon storage project does not create unacceptable toxic risks to local populations or ecological systems nor contaminate groundwater contamination through leakage of CO2. (See long-term leakage issues below):
- Proponents of geologic carbon storage projects must acknowledge ethical duties to compensate or insure local populations from harms caused by leakage of CO2 should it occur;
- All involved in geologic carbon storage projects approval have ethical duties to compare potential risks of these projects to risks from business-as- usual use of fossil fuels and other climate change solutions; and,
- If it is determined that global risks from business-as-usual use of fossil fuel would be reduced by geologic carbon sequestration to the extent that it outweighs risks imposed upon local populations at risk from geologic carbon storage projects, there is an ethical duty to insure against harms, or otherwise compensate local populations from potential harms from geologic carbon sequestration projects.
III. Long-term leakage of CO2 back into the environment.
A. Nature of the risks
Since the purpose of geologic carbon storage is to keep CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion out of the atmosphere, long-term leakage of CO2 from storage sites could constitute of failure of this climate change mitigation technique. In addition, if CO2 eventually leaks into the atmosphere from geologic carbon storage sites in sufficient quantities, it could make climate change impacts worse than they would have been if CO2 emissions were reduced by other methods.
CO2 leakage could also result in contaminated groundwater associated with the site. Therefore, potential long-term leakage from geologic carbon storage sites not only creates risks for local populations and environments but also to present and future generations and ecosystems worldwide.
The amount of potential leakage from carbon storage sites will determine the magnitude of the risks. Very small amounts of long-term leakage may have deminimus impacts on climate change while large amounts of leakage could exacerbate harms from climate change. For this reason, it is important to be able to predict with sufficient accuracy the long-term fate of CO2 at each proposed geologic carbon storage site.
Although there is considerable experience with CO2, injection over several decades at petroleum and gas recovery operations and considerable experience with and understanding about natural storage of CO2 there is little experience with long-term leakage from sites expressly chosen for the purpose of long-term CO2 storage. Leakage of CO2 from gas and petroleum production sites where CO2 has been injected to enhance fossil fuel recovery is believed to be almost zero in the short-term but long term performance of CO2 leakage has not been demonstrated. Experience with leakage of CO2 when it has been injected as part of petroleum and gas recovery operations may not be applicable to sites which do not have geologic confining layers present in petroleum and gas fields.
To prevent threats from long-term leakage of CO2, it is critically important that any potential site be adequately characterized to determine the presence of an adequate cap rock that will trap injected CO2 as well as the absence of other pathways through which CO2 would leak into the environment.
To perform adequate site characterization, it is necessary to determine geologic structure of the site and all potential pathways of leakage from the site including leakage that could come from cap rock dissolution.
Given the large scale of impacts from CO2 injection from large coal fired power plants it may be particularly challenging to determine the variability of the geology over the impact area of the site particularly in zones of variable geologic structure. A site's zone of impact will increase over time as CO2 injection continues and therefore it is necessary to understand site geology over the entire zone of impact for the life of the project which could be quite large for large coal fired power plants.
Risks of long-term leakage can be minimized by adaptive management techniques that are based upon adequate monitoring of injection pressures and storage rates that will limit further injections of CO2 if leakage potential is identified. For this reason, regulatory controls over storage operations are necessary to assure adequate site storage performance.
It may be necessary to install institutional controls over the site to prevent the creation of new leakage pathways over time. For this reason, it may be necessary to restrict some aspects of future land use over the entire zone of impact.
B. Ethical issues entailed by risks of long-term leakage.
Ethical issues raised by risks of long-term leakage of CO 2 from geologic carbon reservoirs include the following:
- Proponents of long-term CO2 storage in geologic formations have ethical duties to demonstrate that there will be no long-term leakage of CO2.
- Proponents of long-term geologic storage should have the burden of proof to demonstrate that a proposed site will not leak injected CO2. in the short- and long-term.
- Siting criteria for geologic carbon storage sites should satisfy international standards given that long-term leakage of CO2 could have international climate change impacts.
- Governments responsible for geologic carbon storage site approval must insist upon adequate regulatory controls over project design, performance, and site selection.
- Proponents of geologic carbon storage projects have a duty to monitor CO2 injection to determine whether site performance will prevent long-term leakage of CO2.
- There are ethical duties for all involved in geologic carbon storage projects approval to compare potential risks of these projects to risks from business-as- usual use of fossil fuels and other climate change solutions.
- Proponents of geologic carbon storage projects must provide for adequate financial assurances to compensate those who may be harmed by long-term leakage of CO2 should it occur.
- Governments responsible for approval of geologic carbon storage sites have a duty to provide an opportunity for all potentially effected stakeholders to participate in site approval processes.
- Governments responsible for approving geologic carbon storage sites have a duty to assure long-term storage efficacy of the site through the development of legal and intuitional controls that will assure permanence of the carbon storage.
IV. Earthquake triggering from pressures created by injected gases.
A. Nature of the risks
Underground injection of CO2 or other fluids into porous rocks at pressures substantially higher than formation pressures can induce fracturing and movements along faults (IPCC 5.7.4.) Induced fracturing and fault movement activation can both increase pathways of leakage and induce earthquakes large enough to cause damage. Reductions of the risks of earthquakes can be accomplished by keeping injection pressures below pressures that will induce seismic activity and by not locating storage sites in seismically active zones. It is believed that risks of earthquake induction can be greatly minimized by regulatory controls over injection pressures and site selection. (IPCC 5.7.4.).
B. Ethical issues entailed by potential earthquake triggering by injected substances.
Ethical issues raised by risks of potential earthquake triggering by injected substances include the following:
- Proponents of geologic carbon storage sites must demonstrate that injection of CO 2 and associated liquids or gases will not trigger earthquakes because injection rates will not be sufficient to induce seismic movement and the site is not located in a seismically active zone.
- Governments responsible for carbon storage site approval must condition site approval on compliance with regulatory controls that will prevent seismic movement.
- To assure the absence of potential triggering of earthquake by CO2 injection, proponents of geologic carbon storage projects should have the burden of proof to show that they have adequately characterized the geology of a proposed injection site to determine potential seismic response from CO 2. injection.
V. Using the potential of geologic carbon storage to delay emissions reductions that are feasible through other measures
A. Nature of the risks
Because of the potential of geologic carbon storage to allow continued use of coal combustion without adverse climate change impacts, the potential of geologic carbon storage can become an excuse for business- as-usual approaches to the use of energy even though there are open questions about the efficacy and extent of this technology to store CO2 in the long-term in the quantities that are now being produced by fossil fuel combustion.
Geologic carbon storage may adequately sequester carbon at some sites while being unacceptable at other sites. To determine the suitability of this technology there are numerous demonstration projects under way around the world, yet research related to these technologies may not be complete for many years.
In addition, since geologic carbon storage may be effective at some sites but not effective for other sites, the potential of this technology's potential use as a mitigation technique that can be applied to existing and planned coal fired power plants is very questionable given the possibility that existing coal fired power plants may not be located near potential geologic carbon storage sites that are economically and environmentally adequate locations for carbon storage.
For this reason, the efficacy and magnitude of geologic carbon storage as an effective method of mitigating the effects of climate change may not be ascertained for many years in the future, perhaps decades.
In addition, the additional costs of carbon capture and storage may make this technology economically undesirable compared to other carbon sequestration methods.
For these reasons, given the urgency of reducing emissions in large quantities in the next several decades, the potential of geologic carbon storage used as an excuse to delay the deployment of other greenhouse gas emission technologies and strategies could exacerbate adverse impacts of climate change.
B. Ethical issues entailed by using the potential of geologic carbon sequestration as justification for not reducing greenhouse gas emissions though other means.
- Given that greenhouse gas emissions are already causing harm to some people and places around the world, no nation that is already exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions may delay taking steps to reduce its emissions on the basis that new less costly technologies may be invented in the future. (Brown et al. Issue 6) For this reason, no nation exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions may defer taking steps to reduce its emissions on the basis that an unproven technology such as geologic carbon storage may be proven to be effective in the future.
- For these reasons, nations that are already exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions need to use all currently available means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions such as renewable energy and energy demand side management to reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions while other technologies such as geologic carbon storage are being tested and developed.
- A nation that delays deploying available technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the basis that new less costly technologies such as geologic carbon storage may be available in the future should be liable for any damages caused by the delay.
- The promise of geologic carbon sequestration should not be used as an excuse for implementing other available greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies.
VI. Procedural Issues Entailed by the Geologic Carbon Storage.
A. Nature of the issues
Because carbon geologic carbon storage creates some risks both to local and global populations and ecosystems and because those who may be affected by adverse harms from this technology have an interest in participating in decisions relating to the deployment of this technology, several issues of procedural justice arise about who should participate in the approval of this technology.
Because geologic carbon sequestration also raises complex technical issues about, including but not limited to, site geology, the need to have integrity in confining geologic strata, the potential toxicity of leakage of CO2 , risks to groundwater, and potential damage from seismic activity should it occur, which knowledge is often beyond the understanding of potentially affected populations, procedural justice issues arise about what steps need to be taken to allow effective, informed participation of potentially affected populations.
In addition, given the global nature of the potential adverse impacts from long-term leakage of CO2 compared to the normal limited national or regional jurisdiction of governments that have site approval responsibility , procedural justice issue arise in the approval of this technology about which bodies can represent global interests in the approval of this technology.
Because failure of geologic carbon storage may not be experienced until far in the future beyond the life of sponsors of geologic carbon storage projects, numerous questions about how to structure liability and insurance regimes exist.
Because of the long-term nature of the need to sequester carbon in geologic strata, issues about long-term responsibility for monitoring the permanence of geologic sequestration exist.
B. Procedural justice issues entailed by geologic carbon storage.
- Procedural justice requires that decisions are made and implemented according to fair processes. Procedural justice requires at a minimum: a) that like cases are treated alike and any distinctions be ethically justified; b) that the decision-making and implementation treat people fairly and impartially; c) that those directly affected by the decisions have a voice and representation in the process; and d) that there be transparency in the decision-making process (Shrader-Frechette, 2002). For this reason, all decisions relating to geologic carbon storage must explain criteria for approval of storage sites, explain how these criteria have been applied to a potential storage site, allow for affective representation by anyone potentially affected by a storage site approval, and make any supporting documentation for any decision publicly available. In addition, any parties potentially affected by impacts from geologic carbon storage sites should have a right to appeal to a neutral tribunal to assure that the criteria for site approval were applied fairly.
- Given the technical complexity of geologic carbon storage decision, those who may be potentially affected by approval of such sites have a right to be fully educated about adverse potential impacts from the site, the siting criteria that were used to make a decision about a proposed project, and all information that was relied upon relating to how a decision about the acceptability of the site. Governments responsible for geologic carbon storage site approval have a special responsibility for assuring the technical literacy of potentially affected populations.
- Given the global nature of potential impacts from long-term leakage of CO2, multilateral global institutions such as the United Nations should develop siting criteria for geologic carbon storage sites and nations and local governments should abide by these criteria once established in fair global processes.
- Governments that are responsible for approving geologic carbon storage sites have a duty to disclose all assumptions and uncertainties entailed by decisions on proposed geologic carbon storage sites so that those who may be affected by such decisions have an opportunity to exercise free informed consent to policies that could harm them.
- Given the urgency of reducing adverse impacts of climate change, the application of the precautionary principle to decisions about geologic carbon sequestration requires examination of different considerations that flow from the precautionary principle. These considerations include the fact that proponents of geologic carbon sequestration projects should bear the burden of proof to prove that serious or irreversible harms will not be caused by proposed carbon sequestration projects, yet given the nature and enormity of harms from business-as-usual use of fossil fuel and given that geologic carbon sequestration might under certain circumstances be an indispensable step to reduce the enormous threats of climate change, some uncertainty about adverse impacts of geological carbon storage projects may not be sufficient grounds for denying approval of such projects. The application of these competing principles that flow from the precautionary principle may depend upon showing that there are no alternatives to reducing the threat of climate change than geologic carbon sequestration. In the face of uncertainty about geologic carbon sequestration impacts, governments responsible for approval of such projects should clearly describe the factors it considered in the application of the precautionary principle to the project. In the event that any approval authority makes a decision about a geologic carbon storage facility that is based upon minimizing the harm from global climate change, it must take all steps to minimize the potential harms to locally affected populations including insuring the local populations against potential harms, taking exceptional steps to assure fair participation of local populations in the decision-making, provide rights of appeal from decisions based upon greater global threats from climate change, and fully compensating local populations for increased risks.
- International multilateral institutions have a duty to support technology transfer, capacity building, and financial support for geologic carbon storage projects in developing countries.
- Stakeholder participation in geologic carbon storage projects must be fully inclusive of all parties who may be adversely affected by geologic carbon storage projects. A particular challenge in this regard is how to represent the interests of future generations in such processes. These interests can be partially represented by assuring the long-term efficacy of insurance, monitoring, and liability schemes. Stakeholders should participate not only in decisions about risks of geologic carbon storage projects but also about liability and insurance schemes, regulatory frameworks, and compensatory considerations.
- In many jurisdictions, government responsibility for assuring lack of harm needs to be fixed through the development of regulatory schemes that adequately consider all potential adverse impacts upon people and the environment including groundwater quality, toxic contamination, short- and long-term leakage and earthquake triggering. Responsibility for decisions about these harms sometimes needs to be expressly identified among local, regional and national governments.
Donald A. Brown, Rubens Born, Paulo Cunha, Ana Lúcia Ortiz Diehl, John Lemons, Mark Lutes, Robert McKinstry, José Domingos Miguez, Maria Silvia Muylaert de Araujo, Carlos Nobre, Christiano Pires de Campos, Luiz Pinguelli Rosa, Erich W. Schienke, and Maria Rita Villela.
Benson, S.. Peter Cook, coordinating authors, et al, Underground Geologic Storage, in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2005, Special Report on Carbon Capture and Storage, Chapter 5. <http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/special-reports/srccs/srccs_summaryforpolicymakers.pdf>, (visted January 2, 2008)
Brown, Donald, Nancy Tuana. Marilyn Averill, Paul Bear, Rubens Born, Carlos Eduardo Lessa Brandão, Marco Túlio S. Cabral, Robert Frodeman, Christiaan Hogenhuis, Thomas Heyd, John Lemons, Robert McKinstry, Mark Lutes, Benito Meulller, José Domingos Gonzalez Miguez, Mohan Munasinghe, Maria Silvia Muylaert de Araujo, Carlos Nobre, Konrad Ott, Jouni Paavola, Christiano Pires de Campos, Luiz Pinguelli Rosa, Jon Rosales, Adam Rose, Edward Wells, Laura Westra. (2006), White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change, The Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change, Rock Ethics Institute, Penn
State University, http://rockethics.psu.edu/climate/whitepaper/whitepaper-intro.shtml
Shrader-Frechette, K. S. 2002. Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.