This is just how far apart we really are.

a.k.a.

Coal-fired power plants, carbon capture & sequestration do not mix.

a.k.a.

Cut the carbon crap!

I really don’t care if one utility goes out of business.

I said as much in a public meeting of the Fargo, N.D. Sustainability Committee a couple of months ago, after a representative of Minnkota Power Cooperative explained how and why it makes sense to add carbon capture and sequestration (CSS) capabilities to the Milton R. Young coal-fired power plant in central North Dakota. 

It was billed as an “educational session” for committee members about the benefits of what Minnkota calls “Project Tundra.” 

From Minnkota’s perspective. And from Minnkota’s motivations.

“Educational” was, of course, a misnomer for “sales.” Truth is Minnkota needs as many North Dakotans as possible supporting Project Tundra; this was just another stop in an ongoing promotional tour.

Back to my statement.

Jaws dropped and eyes widened around tables when I said it. To be fair, I sensed discomfort from fellow environmentalists seated behind me, too. Conventional wisdom says comments like mine can hamper progress toward finding “common ground” and advancing the cause. Saying something like that is a bit too radical.

Nevertheless…

“What we’re talking about here is the future of the human race, so, no, I don’t care if one utility loses a bunch of money,” I clarified.

With that, I left what most people in the room obviously viewed as a shocking statement hanging and went on with my prepared comments regarding why I am against Project Tundra in particular and carbon capture and sequestration projects connected to coal-fired power plants in general.

Had I said more, it would have been that I don’t give a damn if dozens of utilities fold if it means we stop building greenwashed fossil fuels infrastructure.

The Evolution of “Burn, Baby, Burn”

Make no mistake, Project Tundra, if constructed, will be fossil fuels infrastructure. It’s simply disguised as an approach to “reducing” the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

But it won’t actually reduce anything. 

The idea is to capture the CO2 the Milton R. Young plant continues to produce as it continues burning filthy lignite coal, then pump it deep into the ground. 

But the fact is that the operation of this carbon capture and sequestration facility will require energy, and plans call for that energy to come from – drumroll please – burning more fossil fuels!

Yes, as asinine as that sounds, Project Tundra will need to burn fossil fuels to sequester carbon that’s generated from burning other fossil fuels,  artificially maintaining demand and prolonging fossil-fuel companies’ carte blanche operation while generating even more greenhouse gas emissions. 

That makes ZERO sense.

Part of the tortured justification for Project Tundra is that the cooperative has millions of dollars tied up in the plant, money it cannot afford to lose. So it plans to invest a whopping $1.1 billion to keep it producing (code for “continue burning filthy lignite coal.”) Otherwise, given the seriously negative outlook for coal as an energy source, Minnkota would be in financial peril. 

The twisted logic is that investing more than a billion dollars into a plant whose future is questionable will keep the utility from losing millions of dollars. Never mind the externalities, by the way – costs to society for which the utility doesn’t have to take into account, like reductions in air quality, increases in health problems and costs, and CLIMATE CHANGE.

And speaking of “by the ways,” the fossil-fuel cheerleaders say this will, through some sort of seriously black magic, help address climate change, too.

And they want federal tax credits to do it.

Fact is, it’s a prime example of both throwing good money after bad and greenwashing business as usual.

Actually, I Do Care. A Lot.

If I didn’t, I’d never have the fortitude to stand up in public and say I don’t give a damn if a utility goes belly up. Because:

  • Do I actually care if a huge swath of my fellow citizens loses their electricity? 
  • Do I actually care if they lose their investments in their power cooperative?
  • Do I actually care if a bunch of people lose their livelihoods? 

Yes. Yes. And yes.

In fact, concern for people like you, me, our children and our grandchildren drives me to stand up and say things about fossil fuels that people just don’t want to deal with.

But at a time when science gives us just a 50:50 shot at keeping global warming under the 1.5ºC threshold during the next five years, when we’re talking about permanent damage to many of the natural systems that make life on Earth possible, it’s necessary to take the long view.

What we desperately need is systemic change that takes those problems away before they happen, that moves us away from even needing to contemplate more fossil fuel infrastructure, greenhouse gas emissions and inequity.

The hard truth we all must face is that if governments, corporations, elected officials and individuals don’t start looking at that big picture, the entire story is going to end. 

Because, according to, you know, scientists, in their most recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the clock is ticking toward zero.

“Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”

These IPCC scientists have practically been screaming this to our faces for years now, building on what scientists screamed for decades before that. They’ve been begging us to not only start seeing the big picture, but also to respond to it, prepare for it and do everything possible to change it. 

We are talking about the future of the human race, after all. Literally. 

There’s evidence we are already well into the 6th mass extinction in Earth’s history. The difference between this one and the previous five is its cause is human behavior, specifically humans’ incessant burning of fossil fuels. And for those folks who don’t believe the extinction will include humans – sorry, but we’re not getting a pass on this one. 

So, yeah, if protecting the viability of humanity requires insolvency for a utility or cooperative here or there, so be it. 

We Need Carbon Capture & Sequestration. But Not Like This.

Carbon capture and sequestration have never been successful at the scale planned for Project Tundra. Further, it’s never worked with a coal-burning power plant. 

However, as Sierra Club has pointed out, “In some contexts – like cement factories – CCS technologies appear to function as promised.” And it’s working on a small scale in other applications, as well. 

It’s clear that to avoid climate catastrophe we’re going to need technologies and projects that pull CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere back out. Carbon capture and sequestration are essential to keeping the climate crisis from turning into climate catastrophe. 

However, at this critical juncture, taxpayer dollars need to be invested in proven methods and solutions. Rather than capturing CO2 so we can continue to burn it, as Project Tundra proposes, we need to focus on solutions that truly reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. 

A big part of that is to stop building infrastructure that ties us into more years of more fossil fuel production. 

New Fossil-Fuel Infrastructure Locks in Emissions

Make no mistake – the Project Tundra carbon capture and sequestration capabilities, if constructed, will be fossil fuel infrastructure. And once any kind of fossil fuel infrastructure is built, someone needs to make money from it. To do that, they have to burn more fossil fuels. 

See where this is going?

They’ll have to keep those burning fossil fuels for decades. The emissions will be locked in, even though the sands in the human-race hourglass have nearly all streamed into the bottom chamber. Many of the feedback loops have already been closed, and many horrifying impacts of climate change will occur even if we completely stop today, with zero additional CO2 pumped into the atmosphere.

The Prolonging of Fossil Fuel Extraction and Use

Carbon capture and sequestration coupled with coal-burning power plants is not part of a solution to climate change. It’s a delay tactic. 

The support of fossil fuel companies’, aka polluter companies, for carbon capture and sequestration projects like this one is no mystery. The polluters are banking on selling the public on the unproven technology so they can continue business as usual, which is extracting and burning the oil, gas and coal that is damaging our planet, impacting humans in a multitude of negative ways already and seriously jeopardizing our future. 

But renewables are more economical than fossil fuels, anyway. Why spend $1,100,000,000 to extend the life of an old plant?

“Kick the Carbon Can”

Along the same lines, carbon capture and sequestration are simply ways for people to kick the can further on down the road to another generation. It’s another excuse to delay the difficult decisions and actions that are necessary to truly and effectively deal with global warming. It’s leaving the problem for our kids and grandkids to deal with, instead. 

It is absolutely irresponsible.

Water Quantity & Quality

Carbon capture and sequestration processes require water, and a lot of it. North Dakota is already dealing with contaminated groundwater and low aquifer levels, as well as issues with surface water sources. All of this is only going to get worse as the climate continues to change. Taking more water for Project Tundra, whether it’s from groundwater or surface sources, will negatively impact critical and diminishing supplies. 

Safety at Risk

There are serious questions about carbon capture and sequestration regarding long-term safety, specifically the potential for carbon leakage into geologic formations and underground water contamination. Why would we take the risk?

Why on Earth?

In so many ways and on so many levels, Project Tundra simply does not make sense.. 

Which is why, in the final analysis, the climate-change deniers, fossil-fuel cheerleaders and polluter companies are so far apart from people who believe in science and care more about the future of the human race than the next dollar. They see in Project Tundra a way to keep generating more profits from fossil fuels at others’ expense. We see fellow humans who will be forced to deal with even more inequity, more damage, more loss of livelihoods and, yes, loss of more lives. 

I’ve never been accused of being conventional, let alone of possessing any level of conventional wisdom. I just happen to be angry enough to stand up in a public forum and say what needs to be said.

In a shocking way.

Now let me put it another way:

I care deeply about a cooperative, utility or anyone else constructing a carbon capture and sequestration project that will lock in more CO2 emissions for the foreseeable future, contribute to global warming and the disastrous effects of climate change, and compromise the prospects for human life on Earth.

Forgive me, but that just doesn’t seem all that radical.

Sign the petition urging Minnkota to scrap Project Tundra
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Featured image by Emily Guerin via insideenergy.org

2 Comments

  1. A corporation wants to do added building to use an unproven (actually ‘dis-proven’) method to pretend they’re not going to make things even worse? What could go wrong?

    What do “the numbers” say the situation will be if that money is used to activate renewable, non-carbon projects? I suggest it’s a heap more worthy than what they are selling. You’re correct, they are doing a job of selling for THEIR benefit and the rest of us be damned.

    You did the good thing.

Let me know what you think!