Pumping large volumes of liquefied carbon dioxide underground for permanent storage? It’ll cause an earthquake! It’s too expensive! It’ll never stay down there!

I hear this every time the topic of carbon sequestration is brought up as a key strategy for retaining coal as a baseload fuel for electrical generation. The idea is to capture CO2 from coal plants, and pump it into deep saline formations that are capped by impermeable rock. In the Rock Springs Uplift scenario, the injection of CO2 (which is liquefied in the process) would be balanced by removing existing brine in the formation on a one-to-one ratio to avoid over-pressurization.

It’s thought that the high temperature of the brine can be utilized on the surface for geothermal electric generation, offsetting a good portion of the cost of cleaning up the water for potential uses.

While it’s critical that such endeavors are done with careful planning and stringent regulatory safeguards, the idea of pumping CO2 deep underground is no more dangerous than, say, pumping tens of millions of gallons of diesel fuel into oil and natural gas wells for hydraulic fracturing. The oil and gas industry is very confident that “fracking” is a technologically sophisticated and tightly-managed activity that does not present an unacceptable risk. One could argue CO2 sequestration is no more environmentally intrusive than removing mountaintops for coal, or continuing to pump billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or transporting radioactive waste hundreds of miles overland for storage.

So why do I keep hearing this defeatist attitude from those in the fossil fuel industry, most recently from a former Texaco geologist who gave a presentation about coal last week in Jackson? In 1969 the U.S. set off a 40 kiloton nuclear bomb underground near Rulison, Colo., to “stimulate” natural gas production. But, hey, it’s the slow, monitored injection of CO2 that’s going to set off an earthquake.

To be fair, the numbers produced in modeling carbon sequestration are staggering. According to one initial estimate by the Wyoming State Geological Survey, the Rock Springs Uplift in southwest Wyoming could accept up to 26 billion tons of CO2. That’s a lot of liquefied gas. Wyoming’s gross gas production over the past three years equals only about 0.006 percent of that volume.

The amount of natural gas that Wyoming produces each year is about the same as the amount of CO2 Wyoming emits each year from coal-fired power plants and natural gas processing facilities: 52-54 million tons. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the CO2 injection rates being considered by the Carbon Underground Storage Project team at the University of Wyoming are much smaller — 1-2 million tons per year, which is far less than the 18 million tons of CO2 emitted by the Jim Bridger power plant each year. Even at 18 million tons per year, the two targeted formations in the Rock Spring Uplift could accept CO2 injections for 1,470 years, according WSGS’s initial estimates.

And leaks? There are some 200 active and historic natural gas well bores in the populated rural Pavillion area. There are tens of thousands throughout Wyoming. According to industry, these well bores don’t leak, or at least they don’t present a human health hazard. If it weren’t for naturally-sealed geologic reservoirs, the oil and gas industry would have nothing to tap into underground. In fact, it takes great effort to “unlock” 2.5 trillion cubic feet of gas from Wyoming’s underground each year. CO2 injections have been going on in Wyoming for decades, most prominently in the historic Salt Creek oilfield near Midwest and Edgerton. Have there been leaks? They have been minimal and manageable, according to industry.

A public-private partnership that includes the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and Southern Companies has hired the firm Industrial Economics Inc. to evaluate the potential damages of carbon sequestration. If leaky well bores are a serious threat, perhaps this effort could be expanded beyond carbon sequestration.

To be sure, industrial officials are approaching the entire carbon capture and sequestration chain of technologies very cautiously.

“There are lot of people who are deathly afraid of sequestration of carbon dioxide,” said Richard A. Esposito. of Southern Company’s research and environmental affairs division.

Esposito was a speaker at the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s winter board meeting Tuesday in Jackson. He told an audience of about 100 professionals in the electrical generation and transmission industries that new carbon capture and sequestration technologies face much resistance based on past industrial atrocities and near-misses; i.e., Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

“One accident anywhere in the world just shuts us down. It’s just stifling,” Esposito said of Southern Companies’ ambitions for new nuclear power.

Paul Miller of GE Energy’s Global Development & Strategic Initiatives, said the future of coal may depend on the success of carbon capture and sequestration technologies. The stigma of a large accident could kill the industry before it gets past commercial deployment.

“It’s important that these projects proceed successfully,” said Miller. “One accident with regard to CO2 … will be a major setback for these projects all around the world.”

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Bob,

    Regarding well bores in the Pavillion area; I didn’t explain my point very well. I do not offer Pavillion as proof that oil and gas wells don’t leak. Rather, Pavillion is an example of mixed signals coming from industry and regulatory agencies. Pavillion area residents were told for years that the possibility of leakage from gas wells is very improbable, yet we hear a chorus of doubt and concern when it comes to carbon sequestration. If the state can recognize that carbon sequestration calls for a high level of study and precaution beforehand, then why not extend that same level of caution toward oil and gas drilling in populated areas? – Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief

  2. Am I missing the irony here?
    A “defeatist attitude?” I don’t think so. Maybe call it realism.
    1. The “one accident” Paul Miller fears may have already occurred, and under a spotlight. Recent events in Alberta, where millions have been spent on a CCS “pilot project,” strongly suggest that the project has been a monumental failure, with very significant leaks. (http://www.cbc.ca/canada/edmonton/story/2011/01/12/edmonton-opposition-carbon-capture.html)
    2. Ironic you should mention Pavillion as proof that multiple well bores and homes can safely co-exist. Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens and the EPA would disagree, as would those with sick families and those forced to haul water and open their windows to shower.
    3. And what would be the final disposition of the millions of barrels of “existing brine” that must be removed (even after the heat has been used)? This has the potential to dwarf the very real problems of disposal of CBM produced waters in the PRB — and re-injection would not even be an option with CCS. I suppose geothermal electric generation would be designated a “beneficial use” by the State Engineer and Wyoming would be further de-watered for short-term coal profits.
    The basic question, of course, is never asked: Why is it worth risking our water, our health, our agriculture future, to ensure the profitability of the largely outside-owned coal industry? I suppose Wyoming has, by legislative action and by default, stipulated that continuing coal production trumps all other values. But the trade-offs are truly daunting.

  3. Leaks and accidental releases of carbon dioxide are valid concerns, but they pale in comparison to the sheer scale of what a carbon sequestration infrastructure would really mean and cost.
    To capture and sequester CO2 on a meaningful scale (to avoid catastrophic climate change) means a pipeline system that would rival the pipeline system we’ve built in the past century for the transportation of oil and natural gas. And we’d have to get that system up and running very quickly.
    Finally, the liability issue of carbon sequestration is daunting — no set of private insurers are willing to take this on, at any price (sorta like their aversion to private insurance for nuclear facilities).
    Increasingly, it looks very much like my grandchildren will inherit a drastically warmer world with a vastly more energetic weather system that is characterized by exrtremes of weather.