Storing carbon dioxide underground as a means of removing a greenhouse gas responsible for global warming has made James Matternicht a fabulously wealthy man. For 15 years, the Carbon Capture and Sequestration Facility at Rushing River in Oregon’s hinterland has been operating without a problem…or has it?
When mysterious documents arrive on her desk that purport to show the Facility is leaking, reporter Annaliese Winton investigates. Together with a government geologist, Matt Morrison, she uncovers a morass of corruption and deceit that now threatens the safety of her community and the entire northwest coast of America.
Liquid carbon dioxide, stored at the critical point under great pressure, is a tremendously dangerous substance, and millions of tonnes of it are sequestered in the rock strata below Rushing River. All it would take is a crack in the overlying rock and the whole pressurized mass could erupt with disastrous consequences. And that crack has always existed there…
GENRE: Action/Thriller ISBN: 978-1-921636-69-1 ASIN: B007IZXVM4 Word Count: 100, 608
August 21-22, 1986
Simon Nkoma, standing silently in the darkness of the African night, gripped his machete tightly in one sweat-moistened hand, and strained to hear the sound again. It had been an odd sound, something akin to a thump and a gurgle, and he could not think what had made it. He was familiar with the animals of the open scrubland and forest, having lived his whole life in the region and most of his adult life hunting a variety of bush meat. Most nights he caught relatively small animals like bush rats or a civet, perhaps a porcupine or a squirrel, but this night he had been lucky and caught a small antelope in a wire noose.
The sounds of the bush continued around him–frogs and insects, the cries of small animals and rustlings in the leaf litter–but none of that concerned Simon. Those sounds were ordinary and everyday, while this sound…this sound was something strange. Strange was not good when you lived your life depending on your knowledge of the forest. The sound was not repeated however and he shifted the gutted antelope on his shoulders and moved off down the path again.
The visibility through the scrubland was poor, the faint starlight intermittently blocked by cloud, but his feet found the path unfalteringly. He had a small flashlight but only used it in an emergency or in the deepest shadow, preferring to rely on his night vision. The path was familiar, one he could traverse with his eyes shut, but on this night Simon hurried, his gaze searching the blackness for anything out of the ordinary. He came to a fork in the path, sensing it rather than seeing it, and took the downward route toward his village nestled at the foot of the lake.
The vegetation thinned and Simon looked out over dimly-seen fields to the dark, still waters of the lake, the star field above him cascading down the sky until it met the blackness of the crater rim. The sound came again, much louder, a belch and a gurgle as if a giant somewhere broke wind, and in the faint light he thought he saw the black waters shimmer and lift before breaking into white-topped waves. The hairs on his arms lifted and he stared at a lake suddenly alive. Without a conscious thought he dropped the antelope, turned and ran, stumbling back up the path in the darkness. He passed the fork in the path and continued upward, scrambling toward the valley rim, gripped with a terror he could not explain.
Below him, in his village, was family and friends, but he spared them no thought. He only knew he had to get away. A wind passed him, damp and foetid, smelling of rot, and he felt as if a knife plunged into his lungs. He inhaled deeply and choked, his head swimming as if unaccountably deprived of air. He staggered on a few more paces and collapsed in the middle of the trail, unconscious before he hit the bare earth.
Simon awoke with the dawn, his head racked with pain. He sat for a time, waiting for the pain to recede, and slowly realized that the morning was silent around him. He stood, and looked out across scrub and grass toward the village and lake with dread at the ruin he might see, remembering a watery upheaval in the night. However, the huts were untouched, though no smoke rose from cooking fires and no children played in the dusty streets. Men were normally out in the fields not long after dawn but today the fields were devoid of life. Simon could make out a scattering of brown and black mounds on the grass but failed to recognize them. The lake was placid but discolored, as if rain had washed mud into the still waters. The hairs on his arms rose again as awareness flooded in on him. No birds flew in the air above the lake or fields, no animals moved in the fields or forest, no people in the village.
He prayed, lifting his arms to the sky and then set off down the path to the village. He passed the antelope he had dropped and was surprised to see that there were no flies, nor any of a dozen small animals that might be attracted to fresh meat. He left it where it lay and hurried on. Dead bodies lay on the grass of the fields, cattle with heads thrown back and tongues lolling, eyes glazed. A little farther on he found a village dog, also dead, and an old man, collapsed and untidy in death. He left him where he lay and moved toward the village.
Simon entered the first hut he came to, pushing open the door and calling out a greeting. Silence replied, and bodies, but no flies. No flies. Nothing. Nothing lived in the village, not even insects. He stared at a rat lying in the middle of the floor, cockroaches and spiders fallen from the thatched roof, and superstitious fears gripped his mind.
My wife and children. Simon looked at his home near the water’s edge for a long time before going in. I know what I will find. His wife lay in bed, as if asleep, and his two young sons on a shared pallet in the next room, also sleeping. He knelt beside them and called their names, praying they would wake. Miriam, Issa, Tomas. Simon Nkoma broke down and cried, rocking back and forth on his knees, his wailing cries the only sound in a village filled with the dead.
July 8, 1997
Dr Maxwell Hay received the summons with something approaching shock. He had been a member of the scientific staff of the Northern Coal Consortium based in a backwater laboratory in Edinburgh, Scotland, for two years, and had never expected to meet anyone higher than his section chief, let alone the ‘big man’ himself.
“Are you sure he wants to meet me?” Max asked. “Perhaps there’s another Max Hay.”
“Mr Matternicht doesn’t make mistakes,” said the messenger coolly. He held out a slim envelope. “You’re booked on the 5pm flight to London, connecting with a midnight one to Berlin. The exact times are in there. You do have a current passport?”
“Keep all receipts for expenses and reasonable ones will be reimbursed upon your return. Any questions?”
“Er, whereabouts in Berlin am I going?”
“You’ll be met at the airport. Everything you need to know is in the envelope.”
Just before nine the next morning, Max was sitting in the reception room of German Coal and Power, a subsidiary of the Northern Coal Consortium, on the Tiergartenstrasse, waiting to be admitted to the office beyond a polished walnut door. On the hour, the summons came and he walked into a small but luxuriously appointed office with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Tiergarten.
The figure behind the oak desk was slight of stature, bent over papers spread across the polished surface, and Max’s first reaction was one of disappointment. James Matternicht did not live up to the image he had of him in his mind.
Matternicht seemed oblivious to his presence, so Max stood on the richly textured carpet in front of the desk and waited. Several minutes passed before Matternicht looked up and fixed him with an ophidian stare. At once, Max felt the power of the other man and even experienced a tiny frisson of fear. Unbidden, he saw himself as a rabbit frozen by the mesmerizing stare of a stoat. Then the image shattered as Matternicht smiled.
“Ah, Dr Hay. So good of you to come. Please take a seat.” He waved a hand negligently at a pair of padded armchairs near the window, then rose from his desk and joined Max, sitting opposite him. “May I offer you some refreshment? Tea, coffee, a soda?”
“Er, whatever you’re having, sir.”
Matternicht smiled. “I only drink non-GM soymilk. I find it’s not to everyone’s taste.”
“A…a ginger ale then, please.”
Max did not see or hear a summons, but the door opened and a man in a suit entered, listened to Matternicht’s request, and had the drinks delivered within three minutes.
Matternicht raised his glass containing five fluid ounces of soymilk. “Ishkabibble,” he said.
“Er, I’m sorry…cheers?” Max flushed, trying to hide his confusion at the unfamiliar word.
“The word was ‘Ishkabibble’, Dr Hay. It was a toast from the trenches in World War One, and means roughly ‘Why should I worry?’. The proper response is ‘san fairy ann’, which comes from the French ça ne fait rien which translates as ‘It does not matter’…”
Max grinned suddenly. “And that’s a play on your own name, sir, Matternicht–matters not.”
Matternicht’s eyebrows lifted. “Very good, Dr Hay. I usually have to explain that.” He sipped from his glass and regarded the younger man solemnly. “I don’t usually bother to meet my employees, but your file intrigued me. Your academic credentials are impressive, Dr Hay. A double first from Imperial College in Biology and Geology, followed by a superb doctoral dissertation in environmental studies, followed by post-doctoral studies in fossil fuels. Your work record is, of necessity, shorter but still worthy–lecturing at Bristol and then an associate professorship at Durham University–perhaps I should address you as Professor Hay? With your brilliant record in academia, I’m surprised that you opted to join Northern Coal. May I ask why you did so?”
“I, er, was made a very good offer, sir.” Matternicht said nothing and Max felt he was waiting for something more. “I prefer research to teaching, sir, and the teaching load at Durham was, in my view, excessive.”
“You’re on a lower salary at Northern Coal, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir, but I hope that’ll change in the future.”
“I believe in rewarding results…and loyalty.” Matternicht sipped at his soymilk again. “You were a member of various environmental groups at university and demonstrated against the use of fossil fuels on more than one occasion. Yet you now work for one of the largest coal producers on the planet. I find that curious.”
Max took a drink of his ginger ale while he considered his answer. “I won’t apologize for my stand on the environment, sir. I think anyone who views pollution and climate change dispassionately must see that fossil fuels have the potential to ruin the planet. When I was an undergrad I viewed things in black and white, but as I matured I gained an understanding for other arguments. I believe the world has painted itself into a corner with fossil fuels. We’re utterly dependent on them, yet we know them to be bad for the earth. We need non-polluting sources of energy, like solar, wind, hydroelectric, or geothermal, but these are expensive or only available in certain areas. We could develop more efficient technologies, but if we stop coal and oil production while we do so, the world economy crashes.”
“So what’s your solution?”
“I don’t have one, sir. Not yet. But that’s why I joined Northern Coal. I believe it’ll give me the opportunity to research alternatives.”
“You think I should subsidize research that’ll put me out of business?”
“No, sir, but I think it makes good economic sense to find a way of making coal cleaner while the world finds other solutions.”
“We already scrub the exhaust from our smokestacks. In most developed countries, particulate pollution is a thing of the past.”
Max nodded. He put his glass down on a low table and leaned forward. “Yes, the exhaust from your power stations is clean as far as solids go, but it still contains carbon dioxide. That’s one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.”
“Man-made global warming is a myth, Dr Hay.”
“No, Mr Matternicht, sir, it’s not.”
“I have a great many scientists working for me, Dr Hay, some with even better credentials than yours. The consensus of these scientists is that human-induced global warming doesn’t exist. The climate is in a natural warming trend and the so-called greenhouse gases we produce are having little or no effect.”
“If they say that, they’re misleading you. They tell you what you want to hear, not what you should hear.”
Matternicht regarded Max sceptically. “Why should I believe you and not them?”
“Because in ten years time it won’t matter who you believe–the facts will be obvious to all except the professional ostriches. Then the governments will act–reluctantly I grant, because cheap fuel and electricity have always been election winners–and impose such restrictions on the coal and oil companies that your businesses are materially affected.”
“If coal is such a dead-end business, why did you enter it, Dr Hay?”
“The earth’s population is increasing and we need all our resources, including coal. We just have to find a way to make it acceptable. If that can be done, then there’s no reason you can’t go on mining coal to your heart’s content.”
“And do you think there is a way, Dr Hay, or is this just so much wishful thinking?”
“Oh, there’s a way, Mr Matternicht. It’s just not very feasible at the moment. That’s where the research comes in.”
“Certainly, sir. The basic equation we face is coal in, energy and carbon dioxide out. The energy is essential for the economy, but the carbon dioxide is harmful. Unless we want to cut down on the amount of coal burned in our power stations, we must reduce the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by other means. We need to capture it and lock it away somewhere where it cannot warm the climate.”
“You disappoint me, Dr Hay. I thought perhaps you had some novel approach, but you’re just talking about sequestration. We don’t have the land to plant the millions of acres of trees needed to absorb all the carbon dioxide waste for even one year.”
“I’m not talking about biosequestration, but about geosequestration. The Norwegians have already started on that, pumping carbon dioxide into old oil fields to increase the yield. A side benefit is that the carbon dioxide is sequestered, taken out of the equation. The Sleipner field in the North Sea is successful, but on a tiny scale. If geosequestration is to work it must be multiplied a million-fold. We’d have to find a way to lock millions of tons of gas into geological strata for thousands of years. It’s a big task, but not impossible.”
Matternicht stared. “Why has nobody else suggested this?”
“The problem is only now becoming apparent,” Max said softly.
“Write a report on this, Dr Hay, and I’ll read it. Have it on my desk by the end of the week.”
Max stifled a laugh. “If you want a document with a bit of meat and not just filled with vague promises, I’ll need a bit more time. Three months.”
“Three months it is, but Dr Hay, don’t waste my time. If you do, you can try your luck with academia again. If not, well, we’ll see, but I think you could find yourself heading up a research team. At a substantially increased salary, of course.”
Max grinned. He stood and grasped Matternicht’s hand, pumping it vigorously. “Thank you, sir. You won’t be disappointed, I promise you.”