What to do with all that carbon?

 

Capturing carbon dioxide emitted by power plants and factories and storing it in deep geologic formations could prove a critical arrow in the quiver of efforts to combat climate change. Plus there's a bonus: it makes coal and natural gas -- and the reliable energy they produce -- a whole lot cleaner, protecting them from pending greenhouse gas regulations. On November 22 the Environmental Protection Agency finalized two new rules to "reduce barriers" for carbon capture and sequestration. The first regulates carbon dioxide injection wells to protect groundwater under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The second requires sequestration facilities to report how much carbon they emit and store. The rules are meant to guide development of new technology and help America lead the way to "a clean energy economy," but the American Petroleum Institute calls them costly and burdensome.

Underground carbon sequestration has its risks as well as its benefits. It does, after all, involve large-scale tinkering with geology and hydrology. If big a CO2 deposit leaks suddenly from underground it "can kill by asphyxiation," reports the Washington Post. "In 1986, 1,700 people died when a cloud of carbon dioxide escaped from a volcanic lake in Cameroon." And a Duke study published on October 26 found that when carbon dioxide bubbles through aquifers, it can release minerals like manganese, cobalt, nickel, iron and even uranium from the rock into the water.

The University of Wyoming's School of Energy Resources is in the midst of a three-year study to investigate whether the Rock Springs Uplift, a geologic formation with saline aquifers about 12,000 feet underground in southwest Wyoming, can store as much as 750 million tons of carbon dioxide from the nearby Jim Bridger Power Plant over the span of 50 years. Here, geologists are confident that thousands of feet of impermeable rock will keep the CO2 in place. However, to vacate space for the carbon, briny water will have to be pumped out. "The biggest challenge ... will be to construct a customized system that can treat that brine and solve that displaced water problem," institute director Ron Surdam told the Casper Star Tribune.

If we're going to stick CO2 underground, why not displace something we want to bring to the surface instead? Industry has been pumping carbon dioxide underground since 1972 to force out hidden pockets of oil.  Most of the CO2 used for enhanced oil recovery over the last 38 years is mined from underground reserves. While researchers look into storing carbon in southwest Wyoming, energy company Kinder Morgan is actually extracting pure CO2 from underground formations in southwest Colorado and piping it to Utah, Texas, and Oklahoma for enhanced oil recovery. The trick now is to figure out how to capture CO2 emissions from industrial sources like power plants or factories and pipe it to oil fields to put it underground.

One demonstration project fits all the pieces together. The Dakota Gasification Company's synfuel plant, which converts coal into synthetic natural gas, captures about 50 percent of its CO2 emissions -- one of the world's biggest carbon capturers -- and pipes the carbon 205 miles from North Dakota to Saskatchewan for enhanced oil recovery. Expanding that technology to more stationary sources could help reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

But don't hold your breath for big new carbon capture and storage projects; more obstacles exist starting with the -- shall we say -- climate in Congress. National Public Radio reports that House Republicans want to derail the discussion about ways to slow greenhouse gas emissions by calling for investigations into the validity of climate science. A bill to limit carbon emissions and create a market where pollution credits can be bought and sold has "almost no chance" of getting through Congress in the next two years, Eileen Claussen, executive director of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change told NPR. Until regulation is in place, industry has little incentive to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

 

Emilene Ostlind is a High Country News intern.

Image from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change via MediaGlobal.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.