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Roger Aines

ALAMEDA COUNTY, CA — Achieving “net zero” carbon emissions in the battle against climate change will require the United States and countries around the world to embrace all technologies and approaches available.

This includes injecting carbon dioxide pulled from the air into the ground, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory geochemist said Tuesday.

Roger Aines, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) Energy Program Chief Scientist in E Program, told about 110 online viewers that California has more than enough room in the ground to store carbon dioxide safely. Some communities where the oil business thrives already are interested in taking part, due to the threat of job losses as people move away from fossil fuels.

“This is something they want to see happen,” Aines said. “And it's good for all of us, because they also have the knowledge to do it safely. It's the same drillers. It's the same mechanics … These people can do this job and do it safely. And this is the thing that the Livermore lab is pushing to get started in the state. None of these projects are running yet, but a number of them are in the planning process.”

Speaking during LLNL’s and Las Positas College’s 11th Annual Science and Engineering Seminar Series, Aines described several of the options for reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Along with capturing carbon and injecting it into the ground, he said we could move toward electric vehicles, develop solar and wind power generating plants, and remove dead trees from forests. No one technology or political solution is the answer.

Aines expanded on the carbon capture idea, noting that it will be necessary to put it underground because all of the other methods, including solar, will never get carbon emissions to zero. Carbon can be compressed and injected 3,000 feet deep into the ground where oil has already been pumped out, Aines said.

“We believe it's going to stay there,” he said. “The state actually has the strictest regulations in the world for doing this. And this is also going to employ people who currently are working in the oil industry and are going to be gradually losing their jobs as we stop using petroleum. You can have new jobs putting carbon back in the ground. Now this is going to be the rise of the storage age.”

Calling his hour-long lecture “The Role of Carbon in a Net-Zero Economy,” Aines told students that carbon has always played a key role in the United States’ economy; creating a world without it will provide opportunities for them.

“As the future leaders of this country, embrace everything,” Aines said.

Describing how difficult it will be to lower carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, Aines said petroleum is just one of the carbon-producing products that will need change. Farmers, he said, use ammonia in fertilizer and nitrates that create the greenhouse gases that help to warm the atmosphere. He noted that air conditioners, which will become more necessary as the climate warms, use refrigerants; gas heaters in homes will take time to replace with cleaner equipment.

“Airplanes are hard to replace,” Aines said. “How are we going to fly airplanes without carbon-based fuels? People have ideas, but I don’t think any of them are going to be ready to go within the next few decades.”

In California, he said, trees killed by drought and beetle infestation, also pose a hindrance to carbon reduction. Although living trees suck carbon dioxide from the air, dead trees produce carbon dioxide as they decompose.

Thinning forests of dead trees will help, he said, allowing live trees to grow large and absorb the most carbon dioxide over hundreds of years. The removed dead trees can be turned into wood chips that can be turned into energy.

“This is an exciting new thing for California,” Aines said. “The waste that's left over from agriculture — things like rice hulls, almond shells…Those materials can be converted into fuels by heating.”

Responding to a student’s question about earthquakes, Aines agreed that carbon injection should not be done near faults and that inserting products into the ground could potentially cause one.

“We studied this at Lawrence Livermore for 12 years,” he said. “We're working hard on it, because it's a really important question … Basically you have standards on how you build these wells. Standards on how you operate them.”

The standards would be similar to what’s required in other construction, such as building a 20-story building.

“The good news is we've extracted oil and injecting CO2 is just the opposite,” Aines said. “My belief is that we can do it safely, but it is the most important question in geologic storage. The cost is the easy part. The cost is cheap; a single well in a good field can put a million tons of CO2 underground a year.”