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Carbon Sequestration will Not Save Us

Photo by Mick Truyts on Unsplash

As Farber University's slogan argues in the classic spoof "Animal House" — "knowledge is good." Would you therefore favor spending taxpayer money to study better ways to sweep dirt under the nearest carpet?

Such research would produce knowledge. But why study how to do what shouldn't be done in the first place?

President Biden's proposed infrastructure program includes money to study new ways to do "carbon sequestration." The goal would be to capture carbon dioxide produced by burning coal, oil, or natural gas and stash it somewhere rather than letting it escape into the atmosphere. This would allow continued use of these fuels without increasing the danger of a runaway climate.

We should not be spending any money to study this kind of carbon sequestration, which amounts to a large-scale sweeping of dirt under the "carpet."

We should not be spending any money to study this kind of carbon sequestration, which amounts to a large-scale sweeping of dirt under the "carpet."

Our massive burning of coal, oil and natural gas to produce energy for current consumption is using up valuable assets that it took the natural world millions of years to produce. Coal, oil and gas are not just sources of energy; they can be valuable inputs for the chemical industry. We are squandering humanity's natural birthright.

Carbon sequestration would also pile up dangerous liabilities for many future generations, again in order to allow production of energy for current use. To use a "balance sheet" analogy from accounting, both using up assets and increasing liabilities would reduce our "owner's equity" in natural resources. It would leave a poorer world for our heirs, our children and grandchildren.

Remember that carbon dioxide is CO2 — two atoms of oxygen for every atom of carbon. So sequestration would also be removing oxygen — essential for human life — permanently from the atmosphere. There would likely still be enough oxygen left, but this would be a step in the wrong direction.

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More importantly, the sequestered carbon dioxide — huge amounts of it — would have to be stored somewhere. Presumably it would be injected into underground areas where, theoretically, it couldn't get back out.

But how much do we want to gamble that theories telling us this are correct? On August 21, 1986 Lake Nyos in Africa belched out a huge cloud of carbon dioxide that had accumulated at its bottom. Since carbon dioxide is heavier than normal air, it pooled near the ground and killed 1,746 nearby people and about 3,500 cattle by depriving them of oxygen.

A similar burp of sequestered carbon dioxide near a major population center could kill millions of people in a few minutes.

In any event, it is unlikely that carbon dioxide could be captured from power plants without driving the cost of electricity sky high, since the capture process itself would undoubtedly require large amounts of electricity.

The money needed to study sequestration could better be spent to increase reforestation work in the U.S. and in other countries. Trees, like all other plants, actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, incorporate the carbon into themselves and release oxygen into the atmosphere. This approach to protecting the atmosphere was discussed extensively at the recent climate summit, but it could always use more financial support.

Or the extra money could be spent on transitioning from carbon fuels to solar energy, which is already cheaper than those fuels.

Spending taxpayer money to study new ways to do carbon sequestration is a terrible idea. Nevertheless, it may be reasonable to include this small part of the proposed American Jobs Act (the official name for the administration's infrastructure proposals).

President Biden wants to get his proposals enacted into law and including money for this research may give needed cover for representatives and senators, especially those from coal-producing states, to support its enactment.


Wasting money on unnecessary and useless sequestration research may be madness, but there is a method in that madness.

Paul F. deLespinasse