Carbon sequestration Part II 

The Columbia basin’s potential as an underground storage tank for CO2 intrigues scientists, worries environmentalists

click to enlarge Basalt rock in the Columbia River Basin. Scientists are about to test whether basalt could permanently hold carbon captured from coal power plants. Photo by Rajah Bose/High Country News
  • Basalt rock in the Columbia River Basin. Scientists are about to test whether basalt could permanently hold carbon captured from coal power plants. Photo by Rajah Bose/High Country News

By Valerie Brown

High Country News

Environmental engineer Pete McGrail's work is part of the Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership, a consortium led by Montana State University and drawing on researchers from all three of Idaho's universities, the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls, and Battelle. The DOE and several private companies have given $17.9 million to the Big Sky partnership, which covers the eastern halves of Washington and Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota and is one of six regional programs covering the whole country. A map of the entire Big Sky region shows only 21 major industrial sources of CO2 within the Columbia basalt. But the area is surrounded by more than 100 major sources. And because the economics of energy and sequestration discourage long-range transport of CO2, the Columbia Plain may wind up hosting many new coal-fired power plants, sited there specifically to be close to sequestration opportunities.

(There may, of course, be state-to-state variations in permitting. Oregon "is opposed to [new] coal plants" for several reasons, including their release of mercury to the environment, says Dirk Dunning, an environmental engineer with the Oregon Department of Energy. John Stormon, a Washington Department of Ecology hydrogeologist, says that under new legislation, Washington will accept coal plants provided they "address and reduce their CO2 emissions.")

McGrail says he is unaware of any specific plans to build energy facilities that would sequester CO2 in basalt, but he does concede that geosequestration "will dramatically change the siting picture" for energy production. Electricity from coal-fired, CO2-sequestering plants in the Columbia basalt region could feed the power grid throughout the Western United States. Once again, it seems, the Northwest's massive intermountain desert may become the waste receptacle for interests beyond its borders. On the other hand, assuming the unintended consequences of basalt sequestration remain minor, the region is likely to benefit from the resulting jobs and economic growth.

But we're a long way from knowing how CO2 will behave in actual basalt formations, a state of ignorance that will be reduced by the outcome of McGrail's field test.

The search for a solution to the climate crisis demonstrates that we need to know a lot more about what lies beneath us. Perhaps ironically, the deepest such knowledge resides in the fossil fuel industries themselves, which for many years have injected CO2 routinely into oil and gas wells to push hydrocarbons to the surface. Doing this, however, has not necessarily required the CO2 to stay buried for the lengths of time required to slow the greenhouse effect. The Department of Energy's 2006 Carbon Sequestration Roadmap sets a goal of less than a 1 per cent escape after 100 years. An earlier escape would nullify the benefits of the sequestered CO2, not to mention that CO2 would be emitted during the process of injection, McGrail says.


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