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One man's view of risk

For the large majority of my 25 years at the European Commission, I worked on energy and related environmental issues and closely monitored public perception of these issues. In particular, I was always particularly interested in their perception of the management of waste stream from electricity production, especially radioactive waste from the nuclear industry and, since 2004, in the management of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Since my retirement from the Commission in 2009 I have worked for an environmental NGO, Bellona, where I am a Director of their CCS activities.

Needless to say, public awareness about CCS remains an important aspect of my activities. A few days ago, in a meeting with the European Commission, I committed Bellona to undertake a review of what actions we could take in Europe to increase the public's understanding and increasing acceptance of CCS.

It is clear that to do this we need to understand what influences public perception of CCS. Now, I am a geologist, not a psychologist, but it seems to me that the major factor will be if the perceived risks of CCS are at least balanced by its benefits. Unfortunately for CCS, the benefits of managing wastes  while both real and very, or even vitally important  are seldom mentioned and have a low profile. How many of you think about your household waste and what happens to it once it is collected and taken away  or about what would happen if it was never collected? The public health issue alone shows the vital benefit of waste management technology, which we take for granted without a second thought. On the other hand, perceived risks far too often appear to be real and often very dangerous. The important word here is 'perceived' and it is our perception of risks that dominate our acceptance of CCS, rather than its real and important benefits.

Every person's view of risk is slightly different. We might all agree that a certain activity carries elements of risk, but what significance we attach to this risk tends to change from one person to the next. I know people who think that riding a bicycle is too risky to even attempt, while for millions of others it is a necessity of life and often a pleasure  and that the small element of risk is certainly worth taking, if they think about it at all. Personally, I love scuba diving, but a friend of mine thinks it far too risky to attempt. He is a rock climber and mountaineer and sleeping hanging in a hammock attached to the North face of the Eiger Mountain is his idea of a good night out!

What has this to do with carbon capture and storage? The answer is: quite a lot.

I am not referring here to the financial risks that are faced by the operators of CCS projects  though these undoubtedly exist and can, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the maturity of a project and its legal and political environment, be quantified. I am referring more specifically to the risks associated with the actual capture, transport and storage of the carbon dioxide  and, in particular, the latter – which are rather more difficult to characterise and to quantify.

Any list of 'challenges' to the demonstration and deployment of CCS always includes public acceptance or, rather, the lack of public acceptance. Surprisingly, at least to me, this 'acceptance' is more closely linked to the safety of the geological storage than to the capture side of the process. Here comes the sauce of one man's view! I say surprisingly to me because I am a geologist and the proposal to store the carbon dioxide deep underground in certain types of geological formations is a perfectly logical and safe way to dispose of it. The 'risk' element is so small that I find it quite difficult to understand why many people are concerned at all about it. For me, storage is the safest part of the whole process.

On the other hand, I know a number of engineers working on the capture side who think storage is the riskiest part of the process and are often surprised when others do not view it the same way that they do. Of course, we realise that we are all least concerned about those parts of the process that we know best and the techniques and technologies we have worked with for much of our professional lives. But we still sometimes get frustrated when we cannot fully communicate to the others our own confidence in their safety.

If you ask people why they think storage carries a significant, they usually refer to the risk of 'leaks' from the storage site. Now, it is worthwhile here noting that there are very basically two types of 'leaks'. The first of these are relatively small seepages over a long period of time while the other is a major escape of gas from the formation with a significant quantity of gas being released over a short period of time. In the case if an onshore storage site, the former may result in  some measurable changes to the vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the leak, but otherwise would disperse quickly in the atmosphere with no impact on the local population. For the regulator these leaks are the more important of the two, being difficult to detect, quantify and correct  an important step to determine how many emission allowances the storage company will need to purchase. For the public, however, the consequences are negligible and they are of little concern.

It is the perceived potential consequences of a major escape of gas over a short period of time that the public fear. However, such leaks would be very easy to detect and, as they are only likely to occur – if at all  at very specific well-defined locations, relatively easy to stop. Of course, much effort has gone into developing the technology to prevent such occurrences so the likelihood of such a leak happening is extremely low  and the risk to the local population 'close to zero'.

Of course, there is some extremely small element of risk. No human activity is without it. But like for many other decisions we take in life  to climb mountains, dive under the oceans, ride a bicycle or even cross the road - there are also the risks we expose ourselves to from not doing a certain activity.  As some body recently said to me, getting out of bed entails a risk  but staying in bed also exposes us to other, different risks! In the case if CCS, the alternative is to expose ourselves knowingly to climate change, with all the multitude of risks  both known and unknown  that that entails.

So the choice is ours, pump the carbon dioxide underground where the vast majority of it will stay safely forever  or to simply release it into our atmosphere where it will cause our climate to change in a catastrophic way. Even if I was not a geologist, I know, as a parent and grandparent, which extremely small risk I would  and which very large risk I wouldn't  take.

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