Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Love me, love my ideas

Remember that weird idea back in the mid-80s about sucking carbon dioxide out of our warming atmosphere by seeding the oceans with iron, causing phytoplankton blooms? Half a supertanker of iron filings, claimed (the late) John Martin, then-director of Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, could deliver "an ice age."

Greens hated this idea. Lots of people laughed. Everybody forgot.

Well, almost everybody.

Today comes the news: it's too expensive. Even at a $10/ton carbon price (considered plausible, but hardly solid, for a full-blown greenhouse gas emissions market, it just doesn't work well enough. Yes, you get phytoplankton blooms, but after the die-off, most of this stuff doesn't sink very far toward the sequestration target: the ocean floor. It just rots, releasing the CO2 it absorbed. Subtle, unsuspected bacterial interactions cut the amount of CO2 absorbed quite dramatically. You'd need a lot more iron than they thought.

I think they're selling the idea short. I think I can save this crazy idea with my own crazy idea. You ready for this one? No? Well, too bad.

Baleen whales eat plankton, right? And wouldn't the baleen whale population explode with all this fresh plankton? Wouldn't they gobble up a lot of that plankton? Sure they would. You'd have lots of fat whale babies in no time.

So here's what we do: seed the oceans, wait for the whale population to explode, hunt down those whales and use their blubber as a biofuel to replace petroleum. Not by killing the whales, of course. That would be wasteful, and anyway, imagine the outcry. Rather, you'd harvest the whale oil by ... installing liposuction taps on their bodies.

It's a lovely ecotopiac vision, don't you think? The iconic oil-well gusher yields to the happy hunter battle cry: Thar she blows! Latter-day Ahabs ply the seas, tracking pods by satellite, waiting for them to ripen, then harpooning them with tranquilizer guns, and harvesting the ocean's rich energy bounty. They catch-release all the newborns they can find, installing spanking-new satellite-tracking implants and blubber taps. Then they head home, the heroes of a new age: saving the Earth, and keeping our Volvos running.

Aren't I a genius?

OK, don't answer that.

The real story in this story: carbon sequestration research has gotten very serious, very fast. So serious that it's looking at ideas that were pretty darn hard to take seriously, not so long ago.

Even the Bush administration is putting money into carbon sequestration. Well, but of course they are. Sure, they are climate-change deniers, but that's just the surface. Really, they are already well embarked on a search for damage control measures. And why wouldn't they be? Look where Bush & Co. come from. I mean, we're talking about a guy whose closest advisor and workout buddy used to have an oil tanker named after her.

The Dubya crowd footdrags on global warming only because it's inconvenient, in terms of future GOP campaign contributions, to concede on this front any sooner than the last possible minute. Really, they know the score. So they are pouring hundreds of millions into figuring out how to keep current fossil fuel production viable and growing even under a global carbon emissions regime that may eventually require putting most industrial CO2 emissions somewhere. Anywhere. Even in plankton.

Read the sidebar of this story, if you don't believe me.

Following the lead of President George W. Bush, whose $10 billion, 10-year 2002 Clear Skies and Global Climate Change initiative placed carbon removal at the top of the agenda, senior administrators at the Department of Energy (DOE) currently direct a majority of its global warming budget toward carbon-sequestration technology with far less going to alternative energy sources. The DOE's 2005 budget, for example, includes $287 million for the Clean Coal Power Initiative, which is focused on sequestering carbon dioxide from coal furnaces, whereas funding for hydrogen energy research amounted to only $29 million.

Dubya & Co.: putting their money where their mouth isn't.


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