By Valerie Brown
High Country News
An environmental engineer who favors the techie national
uniform — Dockers and a light yellow Oxford shirt — Pete McGrail works out of a
utilitarian office and lab, two among dozens of similar small rooms in the
rabbit warren of cloyingly beige hallways at the Battelle campus in Richland,
Wash. A global science and technology nonprofit, Battelle manages the Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation for the U.S.
Department of Energy. In the post-Cold War era, the United States' national
laboratories have stayed alive by shifting their focus to study technological
and scientific issues outside the nuclear arena, including global warming.
McGrail is a clear-eyed man who speaks in the precisely worded
sentences typical of scientists; he's careful to obey the strictures imposed on
employees at defense installations (and increasingly, on everyone who works at
a federal agency). At least one public information officer accompanies him to
press interviews. No photos can show his security badge. And whether from
natural reticence, scientific rigor, or administrative pressure, McGrail firmly
repulses journalistic queries into taboo subjects such as the date and location
of his upcoming field test of the transformative powers of... lava.
Actually, except for the details of his field test, McGrail is
anything but close-mouthed when it comes to his research specialty, a type of
volcanic rock known as flood basalt. In fact, he sings basalt's virtues at
every opportunity — and the government has begun listening to his tune.
As the reality of global warming sinks in, more and more people
are hoping against hope for a Miracle Cure, a way to avert global catastrophe
by reducing or stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Owing to the huge combined inertia of major energy interests of the U.S.
government and the absence of clear-cut energy alternatives in the public mind,
so far there's been little movement toward reducing fossil-fuel use. But the
government is encouraging efforts to develop technologies that can capture and
contain CO2 emissions before they reach the atmosphere.
Carbon sequestration, as it has come to be known, has one
primary attraction: It could enable the U.S. to keep using its most abundant
(but until now dirtiest) fossil fuel — coal. Some sequestration may be
accomplished by growing or preserving forests and other plant-heavy ecosystems
that take up carbon dioxide by respiration. But a big part of the sequestration
scenario involves stripping CO2 from power plant exhaust and injecting it into
natural underground reservoirs and rock formations.