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Geoengineering our future

Will Squamish experiment be the parachute that helps save our climate?



Two years ago this month, I was in British Columbia with two must-see items on my agenda. I had spent the previous five days, courtesy of the Canadian government, visiting Toronto and then Vancouver. The consulate in Denver, where I live, wanted journalists and others to see and hear about all the wondrous things being done in Canada's two marquee cities to quell greenhouse gas emissions.

On my own agenda—and my own dime—after our final Vancouver visit, I rented a car to drive up the Sea to Sky Highway. At Whistler Blackcomb (WB), I wanted to see how the ski company was helping reduce its carbon footprint. And in Squamish, I wanted to learn more about an experiment that was underway that might help save Whistler's snow. My curiosity about the Squamish project was well founded as news from late last week shows. (See pg. 44.)

In Whistler, WB's environmental resource manager Arthur DeJong graciously gave me a tour of the mountain, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, the bike park and more. Our last stop, the Fitzsimmons Creek run-of-river hydroelectric project, was the most important to me. The Fitzsimmons project was perhaps the most important effort up to that point of a ski company taking responsibility for its role in this giant energy challenge facing humanity.

Some scientists believe it's already too late. In April, carbon dioxide levels, as measured at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Hawaii, tripped across the 410 parts per million threshold, a 130 ppm increase since the start of the Industrial Age two centuries ago. Most of that increase has occurred since the 1950s. Our emissions are accelerating at almost triple the annual rate from that time. In the process, we've already elevated our temperatures by 1.2 to 1.3 degrees Celsius.

Now we're racing toward 450 ppm. Unless we slow our emissions, says Scientific American, we'll hit that mark in about 18 years.

Climate scientists don't know for sure that anything calamitous will happen at 450 ppm. It could be just another increment, with longer droughts and heatwaves, and more powerful typhoons and hurricanes. Or it could be much worse, a big spurt of change. Some of the uncertainty has to do with the feedback mechanisms, such as the thawing of methane, a far more powerful heat-trapping gas, in the Arctic tundra. Scientists call these the unexpected, nonlinear, and frightening outcomes of pushing the climate system too hard.

We're barrelling toward an unmapped climatic wilderness. But researchers believe that if we have better-than-even odds of staying below the two-degree C increase maximum in temperature specified by the 2016 Paris climate agreement, our CO2 concentrations must remain below 450 ppm. That appears improbable. Some models project an increase of almost four degrees C.

Despite the Fitzsimmons hydroelectric project, the new solar farm that makes the Colorado ski area of Wolf Creek 100-per-cent solar powered, and all the things being done in Vancouver, Toronto and cities across the globe, we're still speeding into an unmapped climatic wilderness.

Ice cores extracted from glaciers in Greenland, Antarctica and elsewhere provide surprisingly insightful mirrors of the past. For example, Greenland ice from 1,700 to 2,500 years ago shows levels of lead that indicate mining and smelting by the Greeks and Romans. Ice cores also show CO2 in the atmosphere. Those now are 100 ppm higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

Geoengineering solutions

Writing in The New York Times Magazine last year, Jon Gertner noted that the last time atmospheric CO2 levels were as elevated as they are now was 3 million years ago; sea levels were most likely 14 metres higher and giant camels roamed above the Arctic Circle.

That's where geoengineering—and Squamish's ambitious experiment—comes in. Many scientists have concluded that the only way to avert intolerable climatic changes is to conduct massive geoengineering to reverse the effects of global warming.

An umbrella term, geoengineering falls into two broad categories. One type of geoengineering seeks to deliberately tinker with the climate, to reverse existing and continued effects. One such idea, for example, would attempt to replicate the effect of volcanoes. In 1991, for example, Mount Pinatubo, a volcano in the Philippines, exploded, pushing a plume of gas and ash—including nearly 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide—into the atmosphere, eventually reaching an altitude of 39 kilometres. It was the most particulates sent into the atmosphere since the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. The aerosols formed a global layer of sulfuric acid haze, cooling global temperatures 0.5 degrees C between 1991 and 1993. Krakatoa had a similar effect, depressing temperatures by as much as 1.2 degrees C in the northern hemisphere and also helping produce 95.6 centimetres of rain in normally dry Los Angeles, which averages about 38 cm of rain a year.

All manner of ideas have been formulated to intentionally disrupt the climate. One idea would have us deploying mirrors, perhaps in deserts or even in outer space, to reflect light back into space. Another idea is to artificially brighten clouds, making them more reflective. Still another idea, crudely employed, would be to scatter materials over glaciers, once again to reduce the reflective effect of the native snow and ice. Then others have toyed with dumping iron into the ocean, to spur the growth of carbon-sucking algae. None of these ideas have gone very far.

The second major type of geoengineering seeks to withdraw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The International Panel on Climate Change's 2014 report surprised many by identifying 116 scenarios in which global temperatures could be prevented from rising more than two degrees C. Of these, 111 scenarios involve sucking massive quantities of CO2, from the atmosphere. As Wired magazine noted in a story last December, the goal is to attain "negative emissions," perhaps lowering CO2, emissions below 400 ppm, even down to 350 ppm, as writer Bill McKibben proposed.

Other ideas involve growing plants and then harvesting them and burning them to produce energy. Such ideas have generally been dismissed as impractical for the kind of carbon reduction needed in the next 30 years, simply because of the space required. As Wired noted, just growing the crops needed to fuel these bio-energy plants would require a landmass one to two times the size of India—and this transformation would have to occur within the lifetimes of the Millennial generation.

Other ideas involve direct air capture using industrial chemical processes. That's what's being done in Squamish and a handful of other locations around the globe. The company behind the initiative is Carbon Engineering, and it's been funded by two billionaires, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Calgary Flames co-owner Norman Murray Edwards, who has a big stake in the oil sands of Alberta and also owns Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, the largest private ski resort operator in Canada with six ski areas across the country.

Being of a different income class, I stayed at a hostel in Squamish, sharing a room with about 35 other guys. I found Carbon Engineering on a sliver of land jutting into Howe Sound. The gate was locked that Sunday morning. Peering over the chainlink fence, I saw a long metal shed, several tanks, pipes, and a shaft. The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert, when she arrived a year later, did get a tour but, as much by the industrial plumbing, she was struck by the fact that the site had for many years been used to process contaminated water. Carbon Engineering, she added, was engaged in a process that fell somewhere between a toxic cleanup and alchemy.

A story in The Guardian described the great challenge of this alchemy using the example of M&Ms. If you were allowed to eat every red M&M in a bag, it would be easy to do so if there were but one of every 10 in a bag. But, if the concentration fell to one in every 2,500—the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere—you might just give up on finding the red M&Ms altogether.

Carbon Engineering, in its plant at Squamish, has modified old processes to address this challenge. The process uses a strong hydroxide solution to capture CO2 in a structure modelled on an industrial cooling tower and converts it into a carbonate. Net small pellets of calcium carbonate are precipitated from the carbonate solution. The calcium carbonate, once dried, is then heated, to break apart the CO2 and residual calcium oxide.

According to the company's website, the plan is to move to commercialization, creating industrial-scale air-capture facilities outside of cities and on non-agriculture land.

But there's more. Carbon Engineering envisions combining this direct air capture technology with water electrolysis and fuel synthesis to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuels. In principle, a wide variety of hydrocarbons can be generated, but the company says it intends to focus on diesel and jet fuel. It has been said that electrified truck transport is impractical, as the trucks would be able to carry little more than the batteries needed for their fuel. The problem with battery-powered jets is similar. The plant at Squamish has been producing a barrel a day of synthetic fuel.

"If we're successful at building a business of carbon removal, these are trillion-dollar markets," Adrian Corless, then chief executive of Carbon Engineering, told Kolbert.

But is cost-effective? That has been the big question facing Carbon Engineering and every other company organized to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Cost estimates have run up to $600 a ton, or even more.

Scale is what matters. Can the process be scaled? That was the chief criterion in Richard Branson's Virgin Earth Challenge. He has offered $25 million for the first scalable solution for removing greenhouse gases. So far, the money has remained unclaimed.

But last week, a paper published in the peer-reviewed energy journal Joule revealed that the process tested at Squamish since 2015 has been refined to such a degree that it can done for as low as $94 per metric ton. The news quickly made headlines at the BBC and other international media outlets.

"Imagine driving up to your local gas station and being able to choose between regular, premium or carbon-free gasoline," offered National Geographic.

The BBC, after describing the "tangle of pipes, pumps, tanks, reactors, chimneys and ducts on a messy industrial site," concluded that the process underway at Squamish "could just provide the fix to stop the world tipping into runaway climate change."

"I hope this changes views about this technology from being this thing which people think is a magic savior, which it isn't, or that it is absurdly expensive, which it isn't, to an industrial technology that is do-able and can be developed in a useful way," David Keith, a founder of Carbon Engineering, told BBC News.

In 2010, I met Keith in Calgary, where he was then teaching, with a dual appointment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This was on the tail end of a trip to Fort McMurray, also courtesy of the Canadian government, designed to show-and-tell why the tar sands weren't such a terrible thing.

To my surprise, the Canadian consulate media liaison in Denver—a former bump-skier from Vail—had wanted us to meet with Keith. I was impressed, because even then I was aware of some of his big-picture thinking.

Keith, now 54, comes across as somebody deeply loving of the same things as most people in Whistler and other mountain towns do. He grew up in Canada, the son of a researcher with the Canadian Wildlife Service who did groundbreaking work on the insidious effects of pesticides; his mother was a historian.

After graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in physics, Keith journeyed to the Arctic. On his first trip he camped alone in a remote region of Labrador for three weeks. Then he spent four months living in a plywood shack in the middle of the Arctic Archipelago, tracking walruses with a polar bear biologist. He has called it one of the happiest times of his life.

Keith continues to seeks out solitude in wonderful places. On a recent honeymoon he went backpacking in northern British Columbia. Protecting the climate of existing ecosystems and places clearly drives him.

Some of that thinking has been at meetings convened during the 1990s at the Aspen Center for Global Change. One of the speakers Keith heard had been a proponent of using nuclear devices for massive earth-moving goals, such as digging new canals. But the speaker also discussed geoengineering as a way of addressing the massive challenge of carbon dioxide emissions.

Tinker, Tinker

As a civilization, we've done our best to tinker with weather. Jeff Goodell, in his 2010 book How to Cool the Planet, offers a delightful history of the flimflam artists of the early 20th century who promised they could deliver rain to soak farmers' fields and fill reservoirs in San Diego. After the Second World War, such efforts became more scientific, with the deliberate seeding of clouds with silver iodide and other substances to induce rain and snow.

Vail Resorts, the ski-area operator, launched a cloud-seeding program in 1972 and, after a few hiccups, has been doing so continuously since a disastrous drought in 1977. Other Colorado ski areas, such as Telluride and Crested Butte, have also been involved in cloud seeding. This despite a major, 10-year study bankrolled by the State of Wyoming that found only marginal success in cloud seeding.

The U.S. government, through a program called Project Plowshare, in the 1960s and early '70s explored the idea of using nuclear devices to move massive amounts of Earth. One of the concepts was to thoroughly shake up the subterranean in order to dislodge natural gas encased in tight rocks. Call it nuclear fracking. One of the blasts occurred west of Aspen and Vail in 1969, near the town of Parachute. It created plenty of rubble, all underground, but no natural gas worth anything. It was radioactive. At last, the U.S. government pulled the plug, in what one Cold War analyst called "the reluctant admission that a nuclear utopia was not imminent."

In Calgary, Keith wouldn't singularly bad-mouth the tar sands. (Because this was a Canadian government trip, it was always "oil sands," the preferred term in Ottawa, and Keith used it as well). But what stands out from my notes all this time later is his insistence that all our efforts to that point had been largely symbolic. "For the United States and Canada, motivation for action that goes beyond symbolic is very low," he said.

"It's important to be realistic about this."

In his 2013 book, The Case for Climate Engineering, Keith articulated the same thought about a disconnect between efforts and outcome. "Why has the spending on clean energy produced such meager results?" he asked. "Either the cost of cutting emissions is much higher than analysts' estimates of what's needed or the money is getting grossly misspent. Carbon emissions are so large that deep cuts can only be realized by actions that are cost-effective and scalable."

Cost effective and scalable remain the key words. The paper published in Joule last week described a rate of "levelized cost per tonne of CO2 captured from the atmosphere ranging from $94 to $232."

That is still a wide range, and, in any event, it's well above the world's highest carbon tax, British Columbia's $35 per tonne; it is set to reach $50 a tonne by 2021. The point is that the price of carbon emissions must rise substantially or the cost of removing it must be lowered substantially before there will be any real traction.

Keith has also been working in the other realm of geoengineering. He and another Harvard scientist, Frank Keutsch, had planned to launch a high-altitude balloon, tethered to a gondola with propellers and sensors, to spray a fine mist of materials such as sulfur dioxide, alumina, or calcium carbonate into the stratosphere above Arizona. The censors, as he told MIT Technology Review, would measure the reflectivity of the particles, the degree to which they disperse or coalesce, and the way they interact with other compounds in the atmosphere.

But in spite of his ambitious goals, even Keith has said repeatedly that geoengineering should be secondary to reducing our emissions.

Many scientists have argued we shouldn't even try. Even if successful, would it then allow us to dither on this path towards a massive energy transition? We could just spew more and more carbon into the atmosphere. As the fracking revolution has taught us, we're a very inventive species at figuring out how to get carbon from underground.

What about the unintended consequences? When inventors in the Silicon Valley were creating smartphones, they probably weren't imagining that people would be reading their phones as they drove down busy highways. For that matter, when Henry Ford began mass-producing cars in Detroit, he could not have imagined that one day transportation, primarily from cars and trucks, would be the leading contributor to CO2, emissions. He envisioned creating a greater good, not a greater problem.

Then again, do we have a choice? We're disrupting the climate across the planet each day through our small, unseen emissions of carbon dioxide. We've already jumped off a cliff. Like any base jumper, we had better hope we have a parachute to deploy. It's too soon to say whether the industrial process for removing carbon dioxide from the air in the metal building in Squamish will be that parachute. But keep your eye on it. It's terribly important.

Allen Best writes from Denver. More of his writing can be found at http://mountaintownnews.net.

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