Carbon Nation: CO2 Injection Hits the Northwest 

Unexpected problems start bubbling to the surface

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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.

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