Clean Coal May Cause Earthquakes


Photo credit: wsilver via Flickr/CC BY
Clean coal is friendlier-sounding euphemism for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), the technological conceit of snagging emissions belched out by coal plants and storing them under ground in order to keep them from entering the atmosphere. CCS has long been touted as a clean energy solution, and a political means of reassuring coal states that their lifeblood isn't too dirty to burn after all. Of course, there are plenty of problems with CCS -- the latest being that the process may cause earthquakes. Mongabay reports that a Stanford geophysicist, Mark Zoback, has warned that "Underground storage of carbon dioxide may trigger earthquakes which could allow the gas to seep back into the atmosphere, rendering the emissions mitigation approach ineffective."

Storing too much carbon underground, Zoback says, is "likely to give rise to moderate earthquakes." And though the earthquakes Zoback expects would result from CCS wouldn't be particularly threatening to society, they'd let the stored carbon out of the gas reservoirs and into the atmosphere -- thus rendering the entire operation pointless.

Here's why:

Zoback says the volume of CO2 is too great to be stored in underground sites. For carbon dioxide sequestration to be effective, thousands of injection sites would be needed all over the world. Due to tectonic faults, the possibility of potential earthquakes become realistic. Injecting massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the subsurface could activate faults and trigger tremors.
So a bunch of tiny earthquakes could release all that carbon that the folks fought so hard to store. Interestingly, TreeHugger John Laumer has considered the dangers of an earthquake rupturing carbon storage before -- but it turns out that CCS can actually cause the quakes.

It's yet another bump in the road for CCS, which faces a slew of viability problems -- from being extremely expensive, to needing a massive volume of land underground in which to store the carbon. Things just keep looking worse for clean coal ...

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Tags: Clean Energy | Coal | United States