Carbon Nation: CO2 Injection Hits the Northwest 

Unexpected problems start bubbling to the surface

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"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.

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