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.
"This magical state is called supercritical," McGrail said. The supercritical CO2 is then transported to the injection site and basically squirted into the rocks beneath Washington--or in the future, Oregon and Idaho. McGrail said India also has basalt that could work.
He said the unique thing about basalt is the way it reacts with CO2. Almost like medieval alchemy, basalt turns CO2 into rock. A series of chemical reactions combines carbon dioxide with calcium in the basalt to form calcium carbonate. This is not to be confused with the carbonite in the Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader encased Han Solo in, but the idea is pretty similar. Presto! A pesky problem, be it a swashbuckling intergalactic pirate or globe-heating CO2, becomes a nice, quiet rock.
The process happens over weeks or months, McGrail said, and it works great in lab pressure vessels.
"It can't go anywhere," he said. "It's trapped."
He called it--if it works in the field as it does in the lab--the "safest and most secure storage."
McGrail said Big Sky will know "relatively soon" if the project is working "because as we collect the samples once every couple weeks or so, the trend will develop pretty soon."
Carbon, Carbon Everywhere
Just as the Earth has always released carbon, it has also always stored it, without any hocus pocus. Humans are just releasing a whole lot more of the stuff--from coal burning to fossil fuels in vehicles. Carbon injection isn't the only way to sequester carbon.
"Coal is the culprit in global warming," Kearns said, which is why the Sierra Club has targeted coal power in its Beyond Coal campaign. She called carbon storage and capture "a distraction from the true source of the problem," which is burning coal.
Svejcar researches the way rangelands store CO2. Half or a little more of the Earth's surface is covered in rangelands, he said. Rangelands, forests, humans and most everything else are part of the carbon cycle. Humans and animals inhale air and exhale CO2. Plants and trees uptake CO2 and store it (biological and terrestrial sequestration) and produce oxygen. When biological beings break down and form fossil fuels, the CO2 is also stored (geologic sequestration). But humans dramatically speed up the process of releasing CO2 by burning fossils fuels.
Coal provides about half of the United States' electricity and more than 30 percent of our global warming pollution, according to the Sierra Club. In Oregon specifically, Kearns said despite hydropower, wind and solar production, coal provides about 40 percent of the power. Though Oregon is set to stop burning coal at the Boardman plant by 2020, Portland General Electric has an ownership interest in Montana's coal-fired Colstrip Power Plant, and Oregon gets a large percentage of its 40 percent coal-produced power from Montana and Wyoming. The more coal burned, the more CO2 produced, and all that CO2 has to go somewhere.
The Columbia River basalt layer extends from Idaho into Eastern Oregon and Washington, along the river's path. Big Sky said the CO2 storage potential of the Columbia River Basalt Group "makes it one of the most significant potential deep geological storage formations in the region." Given Oregon's dependence on CO2-producing coal-fired electricity, it's all rather convenient.
Oregon State forestry professor Mark Harmon studies CO2 in forests.
"They will probably say they have a permanent solution, and if it doesn't leak back out, then it's true," he said of CO2 injection. "Nothing biological is permanent, but that's a little bit misleading."
Biological systems like rangelands and forests can be permanent if they are maintained, he said.
"You have to think of what your starting point is," Harmon said, "Nothing is really permanent, even planets and the sun."
In CO2 injection, "they capture it when it's being emitted and transport it and inject it hopefully into a reservoir that isn't going to leak back," Harmon said.
Forests, agriculture and rangeland work a bit differently. In the case of forests, he draws the analogy of a bucket.
"We've got a bucket; we've got leaks in it. Some is leaking out, but the more we pour in the bucket, the more that bucket will store." In a forest managed for carbon storage, one would harvest less often, he said, taking less each time and raising the permanent amount of carbon in it.
No matter how you store it, too much CO2 is a problem. CO2 is part of the greenhouse effect, which used to keep the planet at a nice temperature for human survival, but humans--and our love for fossil fuels--have dramatically increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, and that has increased the temperature of the earth. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the global CO2 for April 2011 was 391.92 parts per million. That's up more than 36 percent from pre-Industrial Revolution levels of 280 ppm, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it's why the earth's temperature is rising--not so good for the survival of any number of delicate ecosystems.
Svejcar began researching rangeland carbon storage in 1993. He said the research lasted "for 10-plus years, but we couldn't get any interest at the Washington level." When it comes to rangeland, "there are lots of examples of people who manage the resource well," he said. If ranchers could get carbon credits for the carbon stored in their rangelands, it could be a marketing niche.
People already buy local, grass-fed meat. Why not buy range-fed meat that comes from lands helping store CO2? The additional benefits to well-managed rangelands are worth even more, Svejcar said: less erosion, better habitat and more productivity. Forests yield similar benefits when managed for carbon and not clearcut.
The cost of monitoring how much CO2 is being stored on something as variable as rangeland is prohibitive, and a drought year can turn a carbon sink into a source, Svejcar said. Most rangelands "over time will sequester carbon but there's huge spatial variability, and there's variability over time."
According to Harmon another reason the quick carbon injection fix--as opposed to terrestrial solutions--is appealing is because some of the agricultural, range and forestry solutions are "a little more complicated than trap it and stick it into the ground," and they give the false image of impermanence. "That makes it harder to sell," he said.
Because there was no interest in funding the rangeland research Svejcar was working on, he "moved on to other pressing questions." Now, he said, with the increased focus on carbon sequestration, "They want us to set up these programs, and we don't have the research behind it."
"The problem is it doesn't take a lot of research to figure out some problems, like with these carbon debts, but there's no money to look at this," Harmon said. Biofuels aren't necessarily bad but they, too, incur a carbon debt. "Everybody's so excited about it and can't see there's anything wrong with it," he said.
Like any bubble, such things may burst.
A New Energy Future?
Big Sky bills itself as "a new energy future for Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, South Dakota, the Pacific Northwest and the nation." The partnership says it encompasses universities, national laboratories, private companies, state agencies and Native American tribes. Several Oregon State professors are part of the project, though none associated with Big Sky responded to requests for interviews.
That new energy future comes with some dangers. According to the State Environmental Policy Act checklist that Batelle Memorial Institute's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory filed in Washington as part of the permit process, "the presences of large volumes of compressed CO2 would present a significant health and environmental issue because of the asphyxiation hazard."
But the SEPA checklist says since the mill site is a mile from any residences and "no natural or injection related activities appear feasible to cause a CO2 leakage event," there is little danger to humans at the pilot site.
What happens after the pilot project is another story if the tests are deemed successful and the effort to store carbon in basalt expands.
Cameron and Jane Kerr allege the Weyburn-Midale CO2 Monitoring and Storage Project in Saskatchewan, Canada, is leaking CO2 hundreds of times above safe levels and killing rabbits, goats and other small animals.
Barry Robinson, a lawyer with Ecojustice in Canada, has been advising the Kerrs on their case. The farm is near an aging oil field operated by Cenovus (which also has a hand in oil extraction from the controversial Canadian tar sands). The oil field is part of the Weyburn carbon sequestration project.
"It's billed as a CO2 storage and recovery project," Robinson said. Three years after Cenovus began injecting CO2 to store the carbon and force oil to the surface, the Kerrs "started seeing some unusual things going on," on their farm--the bubbling ponds and dead animals.
Soil gas testing contracted by the Kerrs showed "very high CO2 levels in the soil on a number of locations on the Kerrs' farm," Robinson said. A study by the Petroleum Technology Research Centre, which manages the CO2 project, said "no results have been found that would support the recently reported conclusion" that CO2 from the project "has migrated through the geological storage system to the surface."
"From our point of view, there's something very unusual going on in the Kerrs' land," Robinson said. And it started, he said, after CO2 injection began. The consultant hired by the Kerrs wrote in his study that the "source of the high concentrations of CO2 in the soils of the Kerr property is clearly the anthropogenic CO2 injected into the Weyburn reservoir."
Robinson said well bores in the oil field--25 within a mile of the Kerrs' farm--that were improperly sealed could account for the leakage.
After the Kerrs released the findings to a media outcry in the United States and Canada, it was decided that more testing would be done. Robinson said Cenovus began its testing recently.
Big Sky had been working on a deal with SaskPower in Saskatchewan to import CO2 from Canada and store it in Montana, but the $270 million deal fell through in late 2010. More than 1 million tons of the gas would have been sent through 50 miles of pipelines to the United States for storage.
Carbon capture and storage is "certainly is not going solve our climate woes," said Kearns.
There's another kind of leakage that is an issue, forestry professor Harmon said.
"Without a system to limit the emissions, you get a lot of leakage problems," he said.
Harmon points out that if one nation restricts fossil fuel emissions and others don't, manufacturing simply moves to the country without an emissions cap. There needs to be an overall system that pushes down emissions, he said, but "it doesn't seem like that's going to happen."
Even when it comes to CO2, Harmon said: "Humans love the techno fix. If we can keep doing what we're doing and just fix it through technology, then we do. If I can get pill instead of changing my diet, then just give me a pill, and I'll just keep eating all those burgers and fries."
This story first ran in the June 16 edition of Eugene Weekly.