A Climate Change Solution?

Beneath the Columbia River Basin, a real-life trial of the uncertain science of carbon sequestration

  • Basalt rock in the Columbia River Basin. Scientists are about to test whether basalt could permanently hold carbon captured from coal power plants

  • Researchers Charlotte Sullivan, Pete McGrail and Frank Spane at a basalt outcrop outside Benton City, Washington

  • McGrail checks a sample of powdered basalt

  • A sample holder feeds information from an x-ray onto a computer


An environmental engineer who favors the techie national uniform - Dockers and a light yellow Oxford shirt - Pete McGrail works out of a utilitarian office and lab, two among dozens of similar small rooms in the rabbit warren of cloyingly beige hallways at the Battelle campus in Richland, Wash. A global science and technology nonprofit, Battelle manages the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation for the U.S. Department of Energy. In the post-Cold War era, the United States' national laboratories have stayed alive by shifting their focus to study technological and scientific issues outside the nuclear arena, including global warming.

McGrail is a clear-eyed man who speaks in the precisely worded sentences typical of scientists; he's careful to obey the strictures imposed on employees at defense installations (and increasingly, on everyone who works at a federal agency). At least one public information officer accompanies him to press interviews. No photos can show his security badge. And whether from natural reticence, scientific rigor, or administrative pressure, McGrail firmly repulses journalistic queries into taboo subjects such as the date and location of his upcoming field test of the transformative powers of ... lava.

Actually, except for the details of his field test, McGrail is anything but close-mouthed when it comes to his research specialty, a type of volcanic rock known as flood basalt. In fact, he sings basalt's virtues at every opportunity - and the government has begun listening to his tune.

As the reality of global warming sinks in, more and more people are hoping against hope for a Miracle Cure, a way to avert global catastrophe by reducing or stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Owing to the huge combined inertia of major energy interests and the U.S. government and the absence of clear-cut energy alternatives in the public mind, so far there's been little movement toward reducing fossil-fuel use. But the government is encouraging efforts to develop technologies that can capture and contain CO2 emissions before they reach the atmosphere.

Carbon sequestration, as it has come to be known, has one primary attraction: It could enable the U.S. to keep using its most abundant (but until now dirtiest) fossil fuel - coal. Some sequestration may be accomplished by growing or preserving forests and other plant-heavy ecosystems that take up carbon dioxide by respiration. But a big part of the sequestration scenario involves stripping CO2 from power plant exhaust and injecting it into natural underground reservoirs and rock formations.

Among the types of rock being investigated for carbon sequestration is McGrail's focus: flood basalt. Most sequestration experts think basalt sequestration a rather quirky, even quixotic idea. After all, most of the country lacks the layered volcanic flows that spread to form the Columbia and Snake river plains.

But basalt has one virtue that other geologic formations lack. In the laboratory, it can transform CO2 into calcium carbonate - the equivalent of seashells or limestone - in a matter of weeks or months, effectively immobilizing carbon in a solid. And because most of the Pacific Northwest is awash in basalt, carbon sequestration of this type could be an excellent regional method of reducing carbon dioxide emissions - if what happens in the lab can be made to happen 3,000 feet below the Columbia River Basin.

Basalt is a majestic rock, a deep black when young that gradually weathers into softer colors, especially the telltale reds that show where iron in the stone has reacted with oxygen. Depending on how it cools, basalt sometimes forms huge or tiny vertical columns - Wyoming's Devils Tower and the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland are prominent examples of the big versions. In the Northwest, one of the best places to see large-scale columnar joining is in the Columbia River Gorge 200 miles west of Richland, where massive columns rear above Interstate 84 as it snakes alongside the river. In the rain-drenched climate west of the Cascades, the stately columns are graced with conifers and ferns, waterfalls and rockslides that are very different from the drab flats and tortured hills in the heart of the Columbia basalt to the east.

As they erode and break down, volcanic rocks form rich soils abundant in minerals. Late in the 19th century, when early boosters like the Spokane newspaper and the railroads dubbed the area the "Inland Empire," the Columbia basalt area drew optimistic would-be farmers. Except for wheat, however, dryland farming was a bust. Not until the dams sprang up on the Columbia and large-scale irrigation became possible did farming expand in a big way.

The center of McGrail's interest lies in this area and in the Columbia River Basalt Group, which consists of about 300 lava flows that ran fast and often in the Miocene epoch between 6 million and 17 million years ago. It covers about 65,000 square miles, in places to a depth of three miles; some of the crustal rifts disgorging the basalt were as much as 100 miles long. Because the lava gushed out and spread horizontally, on a relief map the flood basalt region looks like it has been ironed out compared to the mountainous topography surrounding it.

Of the world's major continental flood basalts, the Columbia group is the youngest and smallest. (The much larger Deccan traps in west-central India erupted about the time the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago, and the even vaster Siberian traps surged out nearly 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian period. The Siberian traps are too remote from large sources of CO2 emissions to be widely considered a candidate for sequestration, but India is intensely interested in the potential of the Deccan traps.) The Columbia basalt's surface landscape is classic Western sagebrush desert, which, unmodified by paved roads, irrigation or air conditioning, appears to be a trackless, inhospitable and worthless wasteland, good for nothing but possibly grazing sheep. The federal government viewed it as a handy spot to conduct dangerous experiments and dispose of nasty wastes, building the Hanford Nuclear Reservation just northwest of Richland to manufacture plutonium during World War II.

Today, Hanford is considered the most contaminated spot in North America, storing a variety of "legacy" nuclear wastes that are far from being completely contained and immobilized. And just across the Columbia River in Oregon lies the 20,000-acre Umatilla Army Depot, where the Defense Department is destroying millions of pounds of chemical weapons at a snail's pace.

Sep 06, 2007 12:12 PM

Thanks for the excellent article, Valerie Brown.  Can you tell me please how to get a copy of the Army Corps study about the seismic activity near Denver in the 1960's? My father-in-law, who is 83, was the statistician who worked on it.  My husband remembers the tremors at that time, during the 60's, when he was a young boy.  Please send to Nancy@Bardwellconsulting.com  - I'm working to stop new gasified coal plants:  www.energyjustice.net/coal/igcc

Sep 12, 2007 12:09 PM

This article by Valerie Brown illustrates our country dancing around the gorilla in the kitchen.  No amount of mitigation for stopping climate change will work unless we stabilize population. Nothing will solve this civilization's spiral into irreversible consequences and unsolvable problems unless we stop population growth.  Fogle/Martin March 2006 'US Population Projections" show the United States growing from 300 million to 400 million in 33 years by 2040.  That's a 100 million people folks!  This "Human Katrina" sweep across this nation making our children victims or survivors.  What we really need: "National Population Policy" ; "National Carrying Capacity Policy" ; "National Environmental Impact Policy" ; "International Family Planning Policy" and "Alternative Energy Policy". Colorado stands in the cross hairs of a added six million people by mid century.  Name one advantage to adding six million people to Colorado.  If we don't stop population growth, we're simply painting the deck chairs on the Titanic to make the look pretty. Educate yourself:  www.numbersusa.com 

 Frosty Wooldridge



Oct 23, 2007 01:33 PM

Good Article, Valerie.  I see a marked similarity between the location of Hanford and the location of this experiment with basically burying emissions.   I was born in the Walla Walla Valley in l944 at the same time Hanford was releasing Radioactive Iodine 141 into the air.  The damage done to this community and the vast Columbia Basin by those releases has been debated for years.  Personally, I have been living with a disfunctional thyroid since I was a small child.  Could it Be, yes probably?  Everyone thought they were doing a good thing siting Hanford where it is, and we are paying billions to try and clean up the mess.  Which brings me to this current experiment at the far west end of Walla Walla County.  I do not believe that there will ever be Clean Coal energy production and I am extremely skeptical about the need for it in the Northwest.  Just because we have lots of coal shouldn't mean we have to burn it to produce electricity, which is quite plentiful with extremely clean hydro-electric systems already in place. So are we looking at producing electricity for other areas of the country at a huge cost to our own quality of life?   When I look out my window at the Blue Mountians, most days I can actually see them.  We have heard from some tourists that we shouldn't allow agricultural burning because it will drive the winery visitors away, I can't imagine what they will say about a coal burning plant.   I dislike windmills and believe that they are a blight on the many scenic vistas of the west, all the while providing power for some far away place, but at least our air is clear and clean so we can see them.


VM Cox