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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