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Carbon Nation: CO2 Injection Hits the Northwest

Unexpected problems start bubbling to the surface

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In 2000, energy giant Cenovus began injecting CO2 into an aging oil field to store carbon and force oil to the surface. Three years later, Cameron and Jane Kerr dug a couple gravel pits on their nearby farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. The pits filled in with water and soon the ponds bubbled, animals died and clots of foam bubbled up. The land was fizzing like soda pop.

Carbon capture and storage. It sounds boring but really it's magic. It's like Harry Potter takes on climate change but with flue gases instead of floo powder: If CO2 gas is a big factor in global warming, then why not just conjure it away?

First take the CO2-filled flue gases from the power plant. Then with a little hocus pocus, the gas is turned to a special liquid. Inject that liquid into the ground, and magically, the liquid becomes part of the rock and, poof--your little CO2 problem is gone. It's not that simple. It might be a little more like a curse than a spell, or it least it has been for the Kerrs' farm.

"There's no silver bullet, only silver buckshot for climate change," said Cesia Kearns of the Sierra Club. "The challenge with carbon capture and storage is that it's unproven, and we're not prepared to deal with the unknown consequences," she said.

But the Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded project, is looking to store carbon underground in basalt rock formations. A test site in Washington is all drilled and set to go, and if tests pan out, Oregon's basalt someday could be home to tons of future carbon projects. Power plants pumping out CO2 could send carbon to injection sites, pump the stuff into the ground and never deal with it again. Drill a hole and bury it. That's much easier than managing a forest or a rangeland for CO2 storage.

Last November, the EPA finalized rules about geologic carbon sequestration to protect drinking water. It created a new class of wells called Class VI wells that the EPA said are to be "appropriately sited, constructed, tested, monitored and closed."

According to a DOE document about the Big Sky project, "To date, Wyoming, Montana, Washington and North Dakota have developed specific statutory requirements to regulate geologic storage of CO2." Oregon is not included on that list of states with laws about carbon storage.

The CO2 Problem

The first step is admitting you have a problem. The United States has a problem. It's one of the world's biggest global warming gas emitters, but it never ratified the Kyoto Protocol that sought to cut carbon dioxide emissions. Neither did the other big offender, China. The environmental treaty, once seen as the world's biggest hope for cutting back on CO2, appears to be a bust.

Under Kyoto, countries agreed to reduce their carbon emissions by an average of 5.2 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2012. Now that 2012 is drawing near, the targets are about to expire and countries at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit failed to agree to a new global warming treaty. Climate change hasn't gone away, but if CO2 injection takes off, we might be one step closer to sweeping our little CO2 mess under a basalt doormat.

Cap and trade was an option under the treaty--putting mandatory caps on CO2 emissions but letting companies buy emissions credits from others who are not polluting as much or from projects that are storing carbon. But that hasn't really taken off in the United States, said Tony Svejcar, a research leader with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. "Carbon is not worth very much right now."

Carbon in the United States is worth about $1.50 a ton. In Europe, Svejcar said, carbon offsets go for $15 to $20 a ton.

According to work by Oregon State University professor John Antle, results from the Big Sky project show CO2 emissions in the region could be sequestered at a cost in the range of $40 to $50 a metric ton in a measurement called carbon dioxide equivalents.

"As much talk as there is about carbon and the effort to reduce carbon," Svejcar said, "we can't get the funding to research this kind of stuff."

The Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership doesn't have that funding problem. A planned Phase III of the project, carbon injection into sandstone rocks in Wyoming, got $66.9 million from the DOE, according to Montana State University, where the partnership has its home, but a Big Sky spokesperson said the injection "did not move forward due to lack of a source of CO2 necessary for the research project."

The Wallula, Wash., test site, just across the Columbia River from Oregon, was part of Phase II, and it got $10 million in funding to drill into the basalt on the site of a Boise White Paper LLC mill, 2,000 feet from the river. It's been billed as the world's first CO2 injection into basalt, though the project is running a couple years behind schedule. Studies of CO2 storage in other types of rock have been around for about 10 years, and high pressure CO2 is injected into aging oil fields to force oil to the surface. Phase II of Big Sky and the other six DOE-funded regional carbon sequestration projects also included looking at some terrestrial projects such as soils, forests, grazing and croplands.

The Wallula Energy Resource Center, a coal-fired plant that would have turned coal to liquid and then vaporized it, was tied to the basalt injection site, according to documents on the Wallula Energy website. The gas would run turbines, and the CO2 released would have been injected underground into the basalt. But the energy project, whose sponsors included Sunwest Management Inc. of Salem, Ore., fell through due to the length of time it was taking to begin the CO2 injection experiment and its permits were withdrawn. Without CO2 injection, the new coal-powered plant would have emitted CO2 above Washington state standards.

Pete McGrail, the basalt pilot project manager, said workers have drilled 4,110 feet into the basalt, and when injection begins, the gas will be injected about 3,000 feet underground. He said the CO2 that will be stored is "food grade," the same stuff used to make soda pop. The permits, he said, are all in place and injection will get under way when shipments of CO2 are timed just right.

"I've ceased making predictions on timelines," McGrail said.

McGrail is unclear on exactly where the CO2 will be coming from. He said the CO2 will arrive by rail, "from which plant I don't know." The SEPA checklist says 1,000 metric tons of CO2 will be "shipped by Praxair Inc. staff from the ConocoPhillips Ferndale refinery."

The flue gases from a refinery are first processed to remove other gases, McGrail said. The process is "so highly selective for CO2 you can get to the 99.9 percent purity."

The CO2 is then heated and placed under pressure until it becomes fluid.

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