A climate change solution? 

Beneath the Columbia River Basin, a real-life trial of the uncertain science of carbon sequestration – Part I

click to enlarge Pete McGrail checks a sample of powdered basait
  • Pete McGrail checks a sample of powdered basait

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.

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