Greenhouse gases go underground



Carbon dioxide, produced by burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal, is the major culprit in climate change, trapping heat and warming the planet. Now the federal government wants to remove it from the atmosphere by burying it all over the West, starting at the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming.

The Department of Energy plans to permanently store carbon dioxide underground in natural reservoirs such as depleted oil and gas fields. Canada and Norway have already begun testing such storage, and experiments at the Teapot Dome site could begin by 2005. Engineers will inject liquified carbon dioxide gas from an Exxon/Mobil natural gas plant into the old oil reservoir and cap it off, then monitor for leakage. If testing proves successful, the government hopes that private industry will spring up around the country to "sequester" carbon dioxide captured from power plant emissions.

Paradoxically, fossil fuel companies stand to make the most from the scheme. The oil industry already uses carbon dioxide injection to boost output from declining fields; the extra oil squeezed out would make it profitable to keep the carbon dioxide underground permanently.

But environmentalists are pragmatic about the process. "We’d rather use our old oil fields to dispose of carbon dioxide and get more oil out, than get oil from another country that’s not disposing of carbon dioxide," says David Doniger, climate policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, noting that even with increased energy efficiency and renewable energy, the country is still going to use significant fossil fuel. John Nielsen, energy project director of Western Resource Advocates, says, "Given the growing evidence of global warming and its huge economic, environmental and social risks, we need to look at any and all options to address it."

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