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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 6.16.11

Carbon Nation

CO2 injection hits the Northwest

By Camilla Mortensen

Illustration by Dan Depaolo. danieldepaoloillustration.daportfolio.com
Small grains of the basalt mounted in epoxy that could be used for carbon sequestration. Courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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 its magic; its 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?û

ûFirst 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.û

Its 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.

øTheres no silver bullet, only silver buckshot for climate change," says Cesia Kearns of the Sierra Club. øThe challenge with carbon capture and storage is that its unproven, and were not prepared to deal with the unknown consequences," she says.

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 says are to be øappropriately sited, constructed, tested, monitored and closed."

According to a DOE document about the Big Sky project, øTo 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.û

The CO2 problem

The first step is admitting you have a problem. The U.S. has a problem: Its one of the worlds 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 worlds biggest hope for cutting back on CO2, appears to be a bust.û

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 hasnt 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 can buy emissions credits from others who are not polluting as much or from projects that are storing carbon. But that hasnt really taken off in the U.S., says Tony Svejcar, a research leader with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. øCarbon is not worth very much right now," he says. Carbon in the U.S. is worth about $1.50 a ton. In Europe, Svejcar says, 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.

øAs much talk as there is about carbon and the effort to reduce carbon," Svejcar says, øwe cant get the funding to research this kind of stuff."û

The Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership doesn’t have that funding problem. A planned hhase 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 says 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. Its been billed as the worlds 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, 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, says workers have drilled 4,110 feet into the basalt, and when injection begins, the gas will be injected about 3,000 feet underground. He says the CO2 that will be stored is øfood grade," the same stuff used to make soda pop. The permits, he says, are all in place and injection will get under way when shipments of CO2 are timed just right. øIve ceased making predictions on timelines," he says.

McGrail is unclear on exactly where the CO2 will be coming from. He says the CO2 will arrive by rail, øfrom which plant I dont know." The SEPA checklist says 1,000 metric tons of CO2 will be øshipped by Praxair Inc., staff from the ConocoPhillips Ferndale refinery."û

The flue gases from a refinery are first processed to remove other gases, McGrail says. The process, he says, is øso 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. øThis magical state is called supercritical," McGrail says. 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 says India also has basalt that could work for injection.

McGrail says 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.û

The process happens over weeks or months, McGrail says, and it works great in lab pressure vessels. øIt cant go anywhere," he says, øits trapped." He calls it ‹ if it works in the field as it does in the lab ‹ the øsafest and most secure storage."û

He says Big Sky will know ørelatively soon" if the project is working øbecause 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 by, from coal burning to fossil fuels in vehicles. Carbon injection isnt the only way to sequester carbon. Kearns says, øCoal is the culprit in global warming," which is why the Sierra Club has targeted coal power in its øBeyond Coal" campaign. She calls carbon storage and capture øa distraction from the true source of the problem.", which is burning coal."û

Tony Svejcar researches the way rangelands store CO2. Half or a little more of the earths surface is covered in rangelands, he says. Rangelands, forests and 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. øCoal is the culprit in global warming," says Kearns, which is why the Sierra Club has targeted coal power in its øBeyond Coal" campaign.

Coal provides about half of the U.S.s electricity and more than 30 percent of our global warming pollution, according to the Sierra Club. In Oregon specifically, Kearns says, despite our hydropower, wind and solar production, coal provides about 40 percent of our power. Though Oregon is set to stop burning coal at the Boardman plant by 2020, Portland General Electric has an ownership interest in Montanas Colstrip coal-fired 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 rivers path. Big Sky says the CO2 storage potential of the Columbia River Basalt Group ømakes it one of the most significant potential deep geological storage formations in the region." Given Oregons dependence on CO2 producing coal-fired electricity, its all rather convenient.

OSU forestry professor Mark Harmon studies CO2 in forests. øThey will probably say they have a permanent solution, and if it doesnt leak back out then its true," he says of CO2 injection. øNothing biological is permanent, but thats a little bit misleading." Biological systems, he says, like rangelands and forests, can be permanent if they are maintained.

øYou have to think of what your starting point is," Harmon says, øNothing is really permanent, even planets and the sun."

In CO2 injection, øthey capture it when its being emitted and transport it and inject it hopefully into a reservoir that isnt going to leak back," Harmon says. Forests, agriculture and rangeland work a bit differently.

In the case of forests, he draws the analogy of a bucket. øWeve got a bucket; weve 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 says, 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. Thats up over 36 percent from pre-Industrial Revolution levels of 280 ppm, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, its why the earths temperature is rising. Not so good for the survival of any number of delicate ecosystems.

Plants store carbon and rangelands are covered in plants, and Tony Svejcar researches the way rangelands store CO2. Half or a little more of the earths surface is covered in rangelands, he says.û

Svejcar began researching rangeland carbon storage in 1993. He says the research lasted øfor 10-plus years, but we couldnt get any interest at the Washington level." He says when it comes to rangeland, øthere are lots of examples of people who manage the resource well." If ranchers could get carbon credits for the carbon stored in their rangelands, he says, it could be a marketing niche.û

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 says: Less erosion, better habitat and more productivity. Forests yield similar benefits when managed for carbon and not clearcut.

Svejcar says that 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. Most rangelands, he says, øover time will sequester carbon but theres huge spatial variability, and theres variability over time."

According to Harmon, another reason the quick carbon injection fix, as opposed to terrestrial solutions, is appealing is some of the agricultural, range and forestry solutions are øa little more complicated than trap it and stick it into the ground," and they give the false image of impermanence. øThat makes it harder to sell," he says.

Because there was no interest in funding the rangeland research Svejcar was working on, he says that he ømoved on to other pressing questions." Now he says with the increased focus on carbon sequestration, øThey want us to set up these programs, and we dont have the research behind it."

Harmon says, øThe problem is it doesnt take a lot of research to figure out some problems, like with these carbon debts, but theres no money to look at this." Biofuels, he says, arent necessarily bad but they too incur a carbon debt. øEverybodys so excited about it and cant see theres anything wrong with it." Like any bubble he says, such things are due to burst.

A new energy future?

Big Sky bills itself as øa 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 OSU professors are part of the project, though none associated with Big Sky responded to requests for interviews.û

That new energy future comes with some dangers. According to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) checklist that Batelle Memorial Institutes Pacific Northwest National Laboratory filed in Washington as part of the permit process, øthe 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 øno natural or injection related activities appear feasible to cause a CO2 leakage event" there is little danger to humans at the pilot site.û

What happens after the pilot project is another story if the tests are deemed successful, and the effort to store carbon in basalt expands.û

Cameron and Jane Kerr allege the Weyburn-Midale CO2ûMonitoring and Storage Project in Saskatchewan, Canada, is leaking CO2 hundreds of times above safe levels and killing rabbits, goats and other small animals.û

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.

øIts billed as a CO2 storage and recovery project," Robinson says. He says three years after Cenovus began injecting CO2 to store the carbon and force oil to the surface, the Kerrs østarted seeing some unusual things going on," on their farm ‹ the bubbling ponds and dead animals.

Soil gas testing contracted by the Kerrs showed øvery high CO2 levels in the soil on a number of locations on the Kerrs farm," Robinson says. A study by the Petroleum Technology Research Centre, which manages the CO2 project, said øno results have been found that would support the recently reported conclusion" that CO2 from the project øhas migrated through the geological storage system to the surface."

Robinson says, øFrom our point of view, theres something very unusual going on in the Kerrs land." And it started, he says, after CO2 injection began. The consultant hired by the Kerrs wrote in his study that the øsource of the high concentrations of CO2 in the soils of the Kerr property is clearly the anthropogenic CO2 injected into the Weyburn reservoir."

Robinson says well bores in the oil field ‹ûthere are 25 wells within a mile of the Kerrs farm ‹ûthat were improperly sealed could account for the leakage.

After the Kerrs released the findings to a media outcry in the U.S. and Canada, it was decided that more testing would be done. Robinson says Cenovus began its testing last week. Carbon capture and storage can be done, the attorney says, øBut it has to be done right."

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 a million tons of the gas would have been sent through 50 miles of pipelines to the U.S. for storage.

Carbon capture and storage is øcertainly is not going solve our climate woes," says Cesia Kearns.

Theres another kind of leakage that is an issue, forestry professor Harmon says. øWithout a system to limit the emissions, you get a lot of leakage problems," he says. He points out that if one nation restricts fossil fuel emissions and others dont, manufacturing simply moves to the country without an emissions cap. There needs to be an overall system that pushes down emissions, he says, but øit doesnt seem like thats going to happen."

Even when it comes to CO2, Harmon says, øHumans love the techno fix. If we can keep doing what were 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 Ill just keep eating all those burgers and fries."