Public Perception Versus Scientific Facts in Carbon Capture Projects

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

One day's carbon dioxide emissions, visualized as a mountain of blue spheres on top of New York. Credit: Carbon Visuals

One day’s carbon dioxide emissions, visualized as a mountain of blue spheres on top of New York. Credit: Carbon Visuals

By Weiye Zhang, C+S ’15

I have been involved in a project with the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) on the byproducts and wastes of carbon capture, utilization and storage. Along with two other teams from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, we are trying to cover the legal, social and public health dimensions of these byproducts and wastes, to identify the risks and to look into the public perception of these risks.

Carbon capture and sequestration, commonly referred to by its acronym CCS, works as an effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has also been recommended by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a means of climate change mitigation. The entire process of carbon capture, utilization and storage generate byproducts that may be usable or unusable. Usable ones, like sulfuric acid and fly ash, can be sold to industry or used in concrete/cement production. Unusable ones — the wastes, including spent sorbents, ammonia gas and reclaimer bottoms — can have major impacts on the environment and public health. In addition, pollutants could be a byproduct of drilling wells for storing carbon dioxide (CO2).

However, all this is how scientists and experts perceive and identify the risks of the byproducts and wastes. The public sees it in a fairly different way.

The relevant news headlines appear in social media often seem to be closely connected to big energy companies like Shell and Exxon. These news articles are the ones that usually get the most feedback from the audience and comments often show concern or even anger towards using captured CO2 to enhance oil extraction. The view that big oil companies are using it for greenwashing, rather than reading up on dry scientific facts, is more likely to draw the public eye. The public tend to oppose to carbon capture and storage simply because it is intertwined with the business of big oil companies regardless of the stand of the news article.

Sleipner carbon capture project in the North Sea. Credit: Statoil

Sleipner carbon capture project in the North Sea. Credit: Statoil

The standpoint of big environmental organizations can also easily sway public perception of carbon capture, utilization and storage. Greenpeace released a report against carbon capture recently with quite a catchy name — “Carbon Capture Scam (CCS): How a False Climate Solution Bolsters Big Oil” —which states the reasons against carbon capture, including lack of financial viability, scandalous connection with coal and oil industries and long-term hazards.

Greenpeace promoted the report on Twitter and the post has been retweeted and commented on by many. The report has been picked up by several websites, such as the Huffington Post and the Ecologist. The information from an influential environmental organization along with the promotion from the media has enormous impact on public perception of this issue. And because of that, the public make linkage between carbon capture and a large amount of money, evil oil companies, future risk of earthquake and water pollution and other negative impacts.

So there is a perception gap between carbon capture scientists or engineers and the general public. As there is great uncertainty over carbon capture, utilization and storage in terms of technologies and future impacts, public risk perception of its byproducts and wastes can influence decision making in building carbon capture projects.

Interestingly, in North Dakota, Wyoming, and West Virginia, people actually do more searches on carbon capture than other states, probably due to the high concentration of energy exploration activities in these states. Political attention is even more elevated in these states. The state officials in Wyoming have expressed keen interest in carbon capture. But nationwide, public concerns over carbon capture, utilization, and storage byproducts lean towards feelings of fear and insecurity.

The problem is, the public and the scientists do not see eye to eye in terms of byproducts and wastes of carbon capture projects. The understanding of byproducts is varied among different people in the first place, therefore, to narrow the gap between public perception and scientific facts requires better communication and coordination.

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