By Dustin Bleizeffer

Representatives from the University of Wyoming and its industry partners continue to make progress on the Wyoming Carbon Underground Storage Project. The team is studying the viability of injecting billions of tons of carbon dioxide — a potent greenhouse gas — into saline formations deep within the Rock Springs uplift,  several miles east of Rock Springs.

Ron Surdam, director of the University of Wyoming’s Carbon Management Institute, said the ability to inject large quantities of CO2 underground for permanent storage is key to sustaining the $1.2 billion Wyoming receives in annual revenue from the coal mining industry.

Barring congressional intervention, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to begin regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act in January. The agency’s first targets will be large, stationary sources of CO2 emissions. Coal-fired power plants — Wyoming coal industry customers — are among the biggest such sources.

“These kind of regulations are dependent on carbon capture and storage,” Surdam said. “There’s no other way to get there now unless you capture and store the CO2.”

Even if the EPA doesn’t take action in January, many other government entities and regional partnerships continue to impose restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.

Surdam said it’s critical that the attempt to help resolve one problem – greenhouse gas emissions – doesn’t create other human health and environmental hazards. For example, a study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology warns that if CO2 were to migrate several thousand feet upward into shallow freshwater aquifers, it would cause nasty chemical reactions and potentially foul drinking water.

Surdam said the scenario is why UW and its partners are conducting a three-year characterization study of the Rock Springs uplift. He said during this phase, Baker Hughes oilfield service company will drill a well to collect samples of various rock layers and sediment. A CO2 injection well wouldn’t be drilled until the second phase of the project.

Less than a year into the initial phase of the study, Surdam said he believes the ceiling rock over the CO2 storage zone is solid enough to block the migration of gases. And above the thousands of feet-thick ceiling is about 5,000 more feet of “low-permeable” geologic layers.

“So the chances of us leaking into a freshwater aquifer in the Rock Spring uplift are very, very slight,” Surdam said.

Not all of carbon sequestration’s challenges are technical.

Because the capabilities to map and manipulate these subterranean resources are largely in the hands of the very companies that exploit the resources, these activities face a skeptical public.

Another major hurdle to commercial-scale carbon sequestration is deciding who will be legally responsible for leaks, contamination and accidents for the long-term, beyond the actual injection and monitoring period of several decades.

UW School of Energy Resources director Mark Northam said the federal government has been reluctant to accept that long-term liability. While some states, such as Texas, have taken steps toward assuming liability, Wyoming policymakers have said the responsibility should fall on the federal government.

Wyoming’s support of carbon sequestration has also been a source of frustration for the oil industry, which is hungry for large sources of CO2 to sweep additional, hard-to-reach oil out of aging oilfields. Some industry representatives balked when the Wyoming legislature allocated $45 million in federal Abandoned Mine Land grant funds for carbon sequestration research.

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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