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A WashPost heaping of garbage

September 20th, 2010 · 1 Comment

This past Saturday, I opened the Washington Post editorial page and saw the following title:

Could the garbage heap help save us from global warming?

This title and quick glance talking about agricultural waste caught my attention, making me think that The Washington Post was publishing an OPED about one of my favorite win-win-win-win climate change mitigation/geoengineering  strategies: agri-char / terra preta /bio-char. This digging in of, in essence, charcoal is a win-win-win-win strategy because it would:

  • Contribute to soil fertility;
  • Help increase agricultural productivity;
  • While producing (limited) electricity; and,
  • Offering a path to sequester significant amounts of carbon for centuries.

A serious biochar program could create jobs, improve agricultural productivity with reduced use of fossil fuel based inputs (fertilizer), and take a bit out of global emissions.

Thus, the first glance response was virtually a cheer as this commonsense, cost-effective, effective on multiple fronts approach made it to The Post’s oped section.  Here is that opening:

In New Haven, W.Va., the Mountaineer Power Plant is using a complicated chemical process to capture about 1.5 percent of the carbon dioxide it produces. The gas is cooled to a liquid at a pressure of about 95 atmospheres and pumped 2,375 meters down to a sandstone formation, where it is meant to remain indefinitely. The objective is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere from the coal burning at the plant.

This certainly seems to be doing it the hard way. Extracting just this 1.5 percent of the CO2 from the plant’s flue requires a $100 million investment, and whether the gas will remain underground or bubble to the surface is in question.

Fortunately, there is a way to capture and store excess carbon from the atmosphere that is cheap, efficient and environmentally friendly.

Great. An attack at the fallacial carbon capture and sequestration silver bullet with offering up that old technology provides a potential answer.

From there, the enthusiasm quickly drained away.

What was his heaping of garbage idea?  That we collect agricultural waste and put them in “garbage heaps” as a path to sequester carbon.

Let’s lay out just a few of the problems with the concept that Price lays out:

  • The “waste” materials that he talks about are, in a lot of cases, now part of no-till agriculture and end up aiding soil fertility.  Taking this material away to dump into piles means that we’ve have to add more fertilizer to make up for the missing organic material.
  • The system would take a significant amount of resources (read energy) to gather the materials and dig them in.
  • And, this process risks creating massive anaerobic fermentation chambers creating large amounts of the  potent greenhouse gas methane (which, after all, is what happens in garbage dumps).

The basic errors in the concept layout should embarrass The Post.  Look at this paragraph:

Any gardener knows that compost heaps must be turned regularly. Without access to oxygen, bacteria cannot break down plant material. The principle can be harnessed for carbon capture: All that is necessary is to pile the plants high enough, and the carbon at the bottom will stay put indefinitely. After all, this is how all that coal and oil formed in the first place.

Do you see the absurdities in this paragraph? Let’s highlight just a few:

  • Again, anaerobic fermentation occurs in the absence of oxygen and, unlike well-turned compost, creates methane. Now, that methane could be a clean fuel support but, clearly, would be returning carbon into the atmosphere.
  • “All that is necessary” is some form of truly enormous pile. Just how big a pile are we talking about? How much energy to dig a serious enough pile to avoid anaerobic fermentation?

Hugh Price, “the director of production planning at The Post,” had a cute idea, perhaps amusing for a brainstorming session, that simply doesn’t stand up to even the most basic scrutiny.

And, well, due to his day job, Mr. Price had a unique path toward publication without, evidently, any form of substantive review of the work.

As online commentators B202 put it,

Again, I wish the Post would discover the unique idea of inviting actual scientists onto its pages to discuss scientific issues. Hard as it is to believe, there are better experts – right here in the DC area – to talk about environmental issues than George Will and your printing press manager. No personal offense meant to Mr. Price.

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