Too Many Greenhouse Gases? Plant 'em

Abstract:Sequestering fossil fuel combustion gases calls for new technology development, and the U.S. Department of Energy is heading up initial efforts to "park" them geologically.

Analysis:The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) last week announced its newest "carbon sequestration" effort, which will involve capturing greenhouse gases—chiefly carbon dioxide (CO2)—emitted from power plants and impounding them in deep brine aquifers.

The sequestration of CO2 and other carbon gases produced by fossil fuel combustion, thought to be the chief culprit in what many scientists call "global warming," has become a cause celebrate around the world. Problem is, the U.S. is tagged as the biggest contributor, and the rest of the world wants it to cut its emissions drastically during the next decade. They said so in Kyoto back in December 1997.

When he assumed office, however, President George W. Bush made it clear that the U.S. will not ratify any treaty that would mandate U.S. industry to start cutting back its greenhouse emissions severely by 2008, as called for by the Kyoto protocol. That treaty, by the way, has drawn only a few official takers, who include Japan and the European Union. What's more, Canada may comply with its Kyoto-mandated cuts, but probably not as an official treaty signatory.

Not totally blind to the idea, but deeming the Kyoto-mandated cuts as far too costly for American industry, President Bush did authorize tax incentives for companies who voluntarily lower their carbon gas emissions to a significant degree. He also handed Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham the responsibility for initiating joint research efforts among private industry, colleges and universities, private laboratories, and the DOE itself to find ways to capture and store such gases in safe places. There are a number of technical possibilities for doing that, including injecting them into oil and gas reservoirs and deep coal seams, and even committing slugs of the gases into the deep ocean environment, where it is believed they might remain harmless forever.

Last week's announcement, however, foreshadows the move toward injecting the carbon gases into deep saline aquifers, which is thought to be one of the ways to sequester the gases the earliest in this country, given that industry already is advancing in developing ways to use them to enhance hydrocarbon production from other geological formations.

In his statement, made at a meeting in New Haven, WV of the National Coal Council, a DOE advisory panel, Abraham gave the go-ahead for one such brine formation research effort—a $4.2 million pilot demonstration. It's expected to get underway soon.

However, he also pointed out that the federal government intends to create a nationwide network of four to 10 "regional sequestration partnerships" involving industry, government, universities, and other institutions. Those joint regional efforts will investigate the whole spectrum of modes for carbon sequestration.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming pilot project involves a research team headed by American Electric Power Inc. (AEP) and Battelle Memorial Institute (BMI) that will begin immediately to look for potential sites in the Ohio River Valley where carbon gases could be injected safely into deep brine formations. AEP volunteered its Mountaineer power plant in New Haven, located on the Ohio-West Virginia border, as the test site. The gas to be injected would be comprised mostly of CO2 from the plant's coal-fueled boilers for power generation.

The DOE is providing $3.2 million of the project's cost, with the private industry partners providing both cash and in-kind support. In addition to AEP and BMI, other participants include BP and Schlumberger, along with a number of regional universities and both national and private research laboratories.

The massive Mount Simon Sandstone saline formation passes beneath the Ohio-West Virginia border. Ranging from 3,000 feet (915 meters) to 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) deep, this formation extends to as far north and west as Illinois and Wisconsin. Several other potential host formations also underlie the area.

Theoretically, says the DOE, such deep saline reservoirs, which underlie all or part of 36 U.S. states, could hold all of the CO2 emitted from the nation's coal-burning power plants during the next century.

The Mountaineer project's current phase is expected to last 18 months, during which researchers will conduct a seismic survey within a five- to 10-mile (eight- to 16-kilometer) radius of the power plant to study characteristics of the underlying rock formations. Early next year, the group will drill a 10,000-foot (3,000-meter) well to study the details of the target area and its overlying sediments.

But they won't actually be injecting CO2 there right away. A $4.2 million investment won't take them very far. Abraham said no decision would be made on proceeding beyond the current study phase until the subsurface geology is deemed suitable for permanently entrapping large quantities of CO2 and until cost estimates are developed for subsequent project phases.

But the DOE deserves most of the credit for plowing tax dollars back into shared-cost research that could allow industry in general to dispose of huge volumes of carbon gases permanently. The research also could help mitigate environmental concerns regarding the use of both coal and oil as fuel for electric power. Plus, it's just a good idea. After all, the project will take place in the heart of the nation's largest concentration of fossil fuel power plants, and extending the technology to include emissions from other types of plants would be a natural and welcome consequence.

As for the regional sequestration partnerships, Abraham said the DOE would issue a solicitation notice later this month asking industry, state, and local agencies, universities, and others to begin forming the partnerships.

The government will offer up to $2 million for initial planning efforts. Later, as much as $7 million per partnership could be provided for actual field verification tests and more detailed regulatory and infrastructure planning. The first partnerships will be announced next spring.

Shared-cost demonstration projects such as these are not new to the DOE or to the industry it serves. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been provided by various DOE offices to help fund projects aimed at developing new technology in both the oil and gas exploration and production sectors, as well as in enhanced oil, gas, and coalbed methane development. A number of major oil companies have been involved in such projects, but a much larger number of independent producers and service companies have taken part, as well. Some of these projects have come to naught, but quite a few have resulted in marked improvements in the way U.S. companies explore for and develop U.S. oil and natural gas reserves.

There are those who would regard the shared-cost demonstrations as "corporate welfare." However, since the new and enhanced technologies developed under them must be shared equally within the industry—even with those who took no active part in the projects—no single company benefits most. What's more, through such projects, young university scientists and researchers will cut their teeth not only on theoretical problems in the classroom, but also on real scientific endeavors in the field. And this practice of stimulating research is extended equally into the downstream sectors of the industry, including natural gas transmission and distribution, refining, and petrochemicals, as well as alternative energy development. So, don't let anyone tell you that only "big oil" benefits.

Leaving out the political problems associated with DOE duties that involve nuclear weapons and fissionable materials inventories and the like, and it's pretty easy to see that the DOE is doing a good job. Technology eventually will solve the carbon gas emissions problem, and that's the way it should be. And if they'll take a closer look at what the DOE is doing to help develop new energy technology, America's taxpayers probably would drop the "corporate welfare" idea like a bad habit.