Reading the news these days is hard. I open last week’s issue of The Week and learn that “forever chemicals”—human-made PFAS that keep our eggs from sticking to the pan, our hiking clothes from getting soggy, and our floss gliding between our teeth—will cost billions to remove from the planet. PFAS can take thousands of years to break down, there are thousands of types, and they exist in just about anything that promises to stay dry, not stick, not stain, endure. That mascara that promised to last? It will. For eternity. But not on my lashes.
I sigh and turn the page to Libya’s nightmare dam rupture, Morocco’s deadly earthquake, and the fact, new to me, that we have been vacuuming up six billion tons of sand a year from the bottom of our oceans. Sand is now second only to water as the most exploited natural resource. Dredged from the bottom of the sea, it brings tiny organisms with it, cutting off food supply for larger fish, and thus for even larger fish, and thus—because this is what gets people’s attention—for us.
Oh, and Europe still has radioactive boars, thanks to nuclear tests thought harmless in the 1950s.
By the time I reach the Innovation of the Week, I can use one. And it is bright! A startup called Heirloom Carbon uses crushed limestone to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. First, the rock is crushed into powder and treated to starve it of carbon. Then it soaks up more carbon from the air, a process the company has managed to accelerate to three days instead of years. Then the crushed rock is heated to wring out the gas, which “can then be stored underground or in concrete.”
I feel a tingle of excitement: this could make a difference. Granted, the limestone has to be heated, but that can be accomplished, the company says, with “renewable energy.” Then I read on and realize: even if the process itself is clean, the wells still have to be dug, the pipelines installed, the carbon dioxide transported—and only the oil and gas companies who got us into this mess can do all that.
Overall, though, taking carbon out of the air has to be a good idea, right? We so need it to be. And the process apparently works so well that the Department of Energy is backing Heirloom Carbon. Microsoft, already one of its funders, is buying energy credits for the removal of 315,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next decade.
And now I remember Earth’s Forgotten Secrets, the book a friend wrote to simplify our environmental problems with some basic truths. One of which is: “There is no such place as away. Everything goes somewhere.” This is the law of conservation of mass. It reminds us that all humans can do is “turn one type of stuff into another type,” not make it vanish.
So here we go again, pretending. Just how much of our own vile residue can we keep burying? We have already buried industrial sludge and solvents; pesticides, herbicides, insecticides; gasoline and motor oil; heavy metals; radioactive waste; asbestos; and expired pharmaceuticals. Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities documents the hundreds of millions of pounds of hazardous waste that companies have tucked beneath us. Here in St. Louis, nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project has created a small mountain. Families hike what Roadside America calls the Nuclear Waste Adventure Trail, climbing to the highest point in St. Charles County with PCBs, mercury, asbestos, TNT, radioactive uranium and radium, and contaminated sludge beneath the kids’ tiny sneakers.
Humans are the burying sort. Sometimes, we bury treasure. More often, we bury the dead. We bury the truth. We bury our shame. And in times of peace and optimism, we bury time capsules.
What a time capsule all this will be.
We need ways to stop carbon generation, not bury it for the next generation. The future does not want this heirloom. Ah, but governments and companies want the instant credits. The confidence of investors. The approval of stockholders. The relief of complying with new climate rules.
“Heirloom will produce high-quality, permanent carbon removal storage credits to enable governments, organizations and marketplaces with demonstrable commitment to emissions reductions to achieve their climate goals,” the company’s website promises. Permanent credits, not a permanent solution.
Meanwhile, where will all that carbon dioxide go?
Some will be used to make concrete, which still requires energy but at least keeps a little sand on the ocean floor. But most of the carbon dioxide will have to be buried. Heirloom Carbon promises to “prioritize siting our facilities on non-arable land.” But “non-arable” reminds me that states drained half the nation’s “useless” swampland a century ago—only to find they had destroyed crucial wetland ecosystems that buffered storm surges, created important wildlife habitat, refreshed our groundwater supply—oh, and also stored carbon, with no fancy tech and at no charge.
I bring this issue to my nature-writer friend, Susan Barker, like a terrier with a rat in my mouth. She surprises me by saying that burying carbon would not be so bad—it was underground in the first place. The trick would be splitting it from the oxygen first, which requires the extreme heat we use fossil fuels to generate, turning the progress forward into one of those snakes that bites its own tail.
Susan, too, is curious just how they are defining “non-arable land.” “Nearly always, something grows there,” she points out, “and you are disturbing that ecosystem.” She rattles off examples: how we gave up on the arid Southwest because corn was hard to grow there—but never asked the First Nations what they grew, how they used the aloe for shampoo and ate the saguaro fruit and the mesquite pods and the palo verde seeds…. “Now Bridgestone is making tires from a natural rubber, using a shrub that grows in the desert without irrigation,” she points out. That land has more value than we realized; do we really want to chop it up (and potentially contaminate it) with wells and pipelines? “All things are connected, and one change can trigger others you have not anticipated.”
Low-income Black and Brown communities know how this works. They often live on what corporations would label useless land, notes an open letter that more than 500 international organizations sent to President Biden and other policymakers in 2021. There are safety concerns about the various new plans for carbon capture, removal, and storage, and once again, those communities will bear the burden. Carbon dioxide could leak out of trucks or ruptured pipelines as it is being transported; it could also leak from underground reservoirs and poison the air at the surface, taint the water, or at best, contribute to climate change. If pressure from the compressed gas builds underground, it could trigger seismic activity. Small earthquakes have already occurred at CO2 injection sites. And larger, unrelated earthquakes could damage the wells or crack the rock layers meant to seal in the CO2.
These new technologies are “a dangerous distraction” from the real reforms needed to wean us off fossil fuels altogether, the letter states. “Considering CO2 injected underground or used in the manufacture of plastics, cement, or other goods will be safely contained in perpetuity is irresponsible at best. It merely kicks the can down a very short road.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.