Polly Glover realized her son had asthma when he was nine months old. Now 26, he has an inhaler in his pocket when on the go in Prairieville, Louisiana, part of Ascension Parish.
“He probably has to leave Ascension quite honestly,” Glover says, but he does not have it because “this is his home, and this is our family, and this is our community.”
The parish is part of the 85-mile (137-kilometer) span between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, officially called the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor, more commonly known as Cancer Alley. The region’s air quality is one of the worst in the United States, and in several places along the corridor, the cancer risk is much higher than the levels that the US Environmental Protection Agency considers acceptable.
Glover says the air is “awful” where she lives, but there is also great biodiversity – ospreys, eagles, migratory birds, deer, rabbits, fish and alligators – among the region’s lakes, rivers and wetlands. The environmentalist has worked for 30 years to preserve the place she has loved since childhood.
That’s why she’s on the lookout for anything that could make air quality worse or threaten wildlife – and her biggest fear now is that a $ 4.5 billion plant designed to capture climate-changing carbon and make clean-burning hydrogen fuel will actually do more damage to Lake Maurepa’s basin.
The blue hydrogen energy plant is planned to be built and operated by Air Products and Chemicals, a multinational petrochemical company. The company says the plant will capture airborne carbon emissions created during production and put them safely underground – a process called carbon capture and storage.
“Sometimes I think people think you’re kind of bubbling this in at the bottom of the lake,” said Simon Moore, vice president of investor relations, corporate relations and sustainability at Air Products. “You know, this is a kilometer below the earth’s surface, where the geological formation of the rock has this porous space that simply absorbs CO2.”
Still, Glover is worried. “I’m not a scientist. I’m a mother who cares,” she said. “We need to be better stewards of the environment, and while it is necessary to reduce carbon emissions, injecting them into the pool is not the answer.”
Several other CO2 capture and storage projects are proposed or underway throughout the United States, including Louisiana, Texas, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and California. Companies behind them maintain that they can successfully remove carbon from the air to reduce pollution and then safely transport and store the carbon underground – or do both.
In some cases, oil and gas companies are relying on this new technology to either help build new profit centers, such as hydrogen-producing plants, or extend the life of their fossil fuel plants.
Carbon capture and storage projects are gaining ground since Congress approved $ 3.5 billion for them last year. Global CCS Institute, a think tank that seeks to promote these projects globally, called it “the largest single grant of money to CCS in the history of technology.”
In the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s top scientists said carbon capture and storage technology must be part of a range of solutions to decarbonise and mitigate climate change. But they said solar and wind energy and electricity storage are improving faster than carbon capture and storage.
Opponents of carbon capture and storage maintain that the technology is untested and has been less effective than alternatives such as solar and wind to decarbonize the energy sector.
“Carbon capture is neither usable nor feasible,” said Basav Sen, climate justice policy director at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank based in Washington, DC. do.”
A study At the end of 2020, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, found over 80% of 39 projects that have attempted to commercialize carbon capture and storage ended in failure. The study mentioned lack of technological readiness as a top factor
But even if the technology was implemented successfully, several critics say the projects would pose a threat to public health in communities that have long been plagued by air and water pollution.
First, they said that any project that extends the life of an existing industrial facility causes further environmental damage by extending the time it pollutes a community, the IPCC report confirms.
Second, they noted that since carbon capture would require more energy to power the equipment, it would result in more air pollution because the technology can only capture a portion of the carbon emitted by a plant.
Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a pioneer in carbon capture and storage technology, disputed this in an interview with the Associated Press. But he acknowledged that there is a risk in transporting and storing carbon.
In 2020, a compressed carbon dioxide pipeline burst in the city of Satartia, Mississippi, causing over 40 people to get hospital treatment and more than 300 to evacuate. The incident is cited by experts, lawyers and residents living near proposed carbon capture and storage projects to illustrate potential dangers of transporting carbon over long distances.
Injection of carbon underground for storage can end up contaminating groundwater reservoirs, according to Nikki Reisch, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Center for International Environmental Law.
Over 500 environmental organizations, including the law center, signed an open letter published in the Washington Post in July 2021 and called carbon capture and storage a “false solution”.
In response, the Carbon Capture Coalition, which is in favor of technology, released its own letter in August with over 100 signatories. They pressured Congress to include investments in CO2 capture and storage in any forthcoming legislation.
Matt Fry, a state and regional policy chief at the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based climate and energy think tank, told the AP that technology is crucial to meeting the mid-century climate goals.
“The potential for a completely decarbonized, electrified world is a reality,” Fry said. “But we’ll have to adjust to get there. And it’s going to require carbon capture to deal with those emissions.”
At the capture point, Herzog said, the technology poses a “very low” threat to public health. “There is always a chance of some mishaps,” he added, “but on the overall scale of chemical factories, (the technology) is quite benign.”
Still, residents near proposed projects worry.
In California’s Central Valley Agricultural Region, Chevron, Microsoft and Schlumberger New Energy are collaborating to build a plant in the town of Mendota that will generate energy by converting agricultural waste into carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas and then mixing it with oxygen to generate electricity with the promise of capturing 99 % of the carbon from the process.
Chevron said it plans to inject the carbon “underground into nearby deep geological formations.”
It is worrying for Nayamin Martinez, who lives in the valley and is the director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “It worries us a lot,” she said. “What does this mean in relation to the risk of contamination of drinking water?”
Creighton Welch, a spokesman for Chevron, said the process they plan to use is safe. “CO2 capture, injection and storage are not new technologies and have been performed safely for decades,” Welch said.
Back in Louisiana, Glover and other residents also fear that carbon capture technology will affect the water. The carbon dioxide captured at the Air Products and Chemicals plant will be stored in places such as under Lake Maurepas, an important wetland.
Kim Coates, who lives on the northeast side of the lake, said it is a buffer between the Gulf of Mexico and the residents. But she said she has witnessed generations of destruction of that ecosystem through industrial development and recent hurricanes and tropical storms.
Now Coates fears more of the same if carbon is stored under the lake. “We have seen the devastation over time, with no one looking forward to what should happen in the future,” she said.
Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.
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