Agriculture has changed, too: The Columbia basalt is now home to a burgeoning wine industry, second in America only to California's Napa Valley. Vineyards seem to cover every south-facing hillside, and grapes love the soil. The wineries are building Spanish- and Italian-style villas atop hillcrests to lure foodie tourists. Under the influence of viniculture's transplanted European rusticity, the landscape has lost some of its harsh Old Testament quality. The wine influence is echoed in the Tri-Cities' many new housing developments, where mushrooming McMansions often look more like McChateaux.

The region's growth doesn't please everyone. Thirty miles east of the Tri-Cities, the once-sleepy town of Walla Walla has changed beyond the recognition of long-term residents. In the spirit of the "Don't Californicate Oregon" campaign of the 1970s and 1980s, "Don't Bend Walla Walla" stickers shout from bumpers - a reference to Bend, Ore., whose explosive growth has caused similar distress to its locals.

In late June, the site of McGrail's sequestration field test was finally revealed: Wallula, Wash., a few miles south of the Tri-Cities on the east bank of the Columbia River just below its confluence with the Snake and Yakima rivers. McGrail's team will inject 3,000 tons of CO2 into the Grande Ronde formation of the Columbia basalt at a depth of 3,000 feet or more.

The site, an industrial park, has easy access to hydropower, rail lines and the Columbia River. Energy producers have taken notice: A new Gig Harbor, Washington-based energy consortium called the Wallula Energy Resource Center has announced plans to build a $2 billion state-of-the-art power plant near the test site. It would be an integrated gasification combined cycle coal-fired power plant with 600-700 megawatts of capacity. The power plant would use McGrail's test site to sequester 65 percent of its CO2. If the Byzantine energy-facility permitting process goes well, the plant could be operating by 2013.

Some Washington environmental organizations share the doubts of the national groups about the "clean coal" scenario. Sequestration is "unproven, it's expensive, and it's going to add some costs and risks for Washington utilities and residents," says Paul Horton, executive director of Climate Solutions, an Olympia, Washington-based nonprofit. "We'd rather enable other kinds of investments, a smarter way of using energy."

Indeed, any successful geosequestration technology risks enabling a continued reliance on fossil fuels, even though most experts agree that climate change requires action on many fronts, including a reduction in the use of hydrocarbons. If geosequestration works, keeping the good news from seeming like a panacea will be difficult. Some cynics even suspect that coal interests will promise sequestration to get their permits - and then renege after the plants are built, claiming it would be too costly.

Horton, however, thinks that in the near future Washington state's new regulations and federal climate policies will bring "legal limits and caps." These new guidelines will change the price of power, making renewables and energy efficiency much more competitive. "The rules of the game change at that point," he says.

But even if it works perfectly, CO2 sequestration of any sort won't be the Holy Grail of global warming; McGrail stresses that all the other options have to be employed as well, from energy conservation to alternative energy sources. Geosequestration, he says, is just "the linchpin that finally gets us to stable (atmospheric) CO2."

It will take about three years to get an idea of how well McGrail's lab tests and calculations have predicted the behavior of CO2 in basalt under real-world conditions. If things go well, perhaps basalt's poor-relation status will change, and its main champion will go down in history as the "Holy McGrail" of carbon sequestration, a designation his multi-layered diffidence would surely resist.


Valerie Brown, a science writer and musician, lives near Portland, Oregon. She grew up on Idaho's Snake River flood basalt; her grandfather ran sheep on Oregon's Columbia River basalt in the early 20th century; and her geologist father intensely studied gabbro, a close relative of basalt, in a formation on the Oregon-Idaho border.

 Carbon Bookshelf

Potential for carbon dioxide sequestration in flood basalts

by B. Peter McGrail, H. Todd Schaef, Anita M. Ho, Yi-Ju Chien, James J. Dooley, and Casie L. Davidson; Journal of Geophysical Research Vol. 111, B12202, doi:10.1029/2005JB004169, 2006

Columbia River Flood Basalt Province, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, USA

Health, Safety and Environmental Risks of Underground CO2 sequestration: Overview of mechanisms and current knowledge

by Kay Damen, Andre Faaij and Wim Turkenburg; Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation;

A Sudden Change of State

by George Monbiot Posted July 3, 2007

Climate Change and Trace Gases

by James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Pushker Kharecha, Gary Russell, David W. Lea and Mark Siddall; Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; A (2007) 365, 1925-1954, doi:10.1098/rsta.2007.2052; Published online 18 May 2007

Large Igneous Provinces

Wallula Energy Resource Center

Lewis & Clark's Columbia River - "200 Years Later" - "Columbia River Basalt Group (Columbia basalt)" -V.B.