On February 27, Wyoming passed a set of laws designed to flesh out a legal framework for burying carbon emissions in the geologic cavities, or "pore spaces," that lie beneath significant portions of the state. The rules attempt to answer a few pertinent questions. Notably: Who will be responsible for the carbon once it's been injected into a pore space, and for how long? And, if one person wants to sequester carbon where another plans to dig for coal, drill for oil, or mine uranium, whose claim takes precedence?
It'll be awhile before anyone starts sequestering carbon on a commercial scale (probably more than a decade where coal power plants are concerned), and it's likely that any answers to these questions will change before sequestration becomes a reality. But here are two interesting issues that stick out so far:
Liability: Wyoming HB 58 states that the person who injects the CO2 holds the responsibility for it, and the bill doesn't put a time limit on that responsibility. That's good news for the global climate crisis. After all, there's not much point in capturing carbon dioxide for just a little while. But the law probably wasn't passed out of a larger concern for the climate. Wyoming just doesn't want to bear the liability itself.
But then again, neither does anyone else.
Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, predicts a game of carbon hot potato:
"I would suspect that with the liability clause written the way it’s written, nobody is ever going to inject CO2. I don’t think there’s a company in the world that has enough money (to keep an eye on the CO2 indefinitely). I think this law will change over and over again."
Conflicts with existing interests: Wyoming HB 57 states that where pore space rights overlap with mineral rights, the mineral rights are dominant. The lawmakers behind HB 57 describe it as a routine, unremarkable sort of bill merely intended to prevent conflicts of use. But others worry that the law places too much power in the hands of existing mineral rights owners.
“Given the extent of mineral development in this state, pretty much any area you pick is going to have some overlap with mineral development, particularly oil and gas,” said Shannon Anderson, a lawyer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
Before too long, there will likely be a national carbon market in the United States. When it arrives, sequestration sites will likely become more valuable. Anderson suggests that HB 57 may place mineral rights owners in a profitable position by giving them the power to indirectly nix -- or not nix -- potential sequestration projects.
But maybe it's not surprising that, as yet, Wyoming's fossil energy industry occupies an ambiguous position in relation to the new laws. Since those rules were formulated largely to bolster that very industry. Other western states, including New Mexico, Montana, and California, have been working to put together sequestration frameworks of their own. But as yet, Wyoming's rules are among the most comprehensive in the country, and it's not hard to see why. Wyoming exports more coal than any other state in the nation, and it's a top oil and gas producer as well. So with carbon-heavy energy sources becoming tougher and tougher to sell, it makes sense that legislators are reaching for an opportunity to rein in the emissions from those dirty fuels.
There's irony in the fact that Wyoming's grasping at a lifeline made of the same stuff poisoning us in the first place. But it's hard to say what else, given the circumstances on the ground, lawmakers can do.