This week, technicians in southeast Washington continue a field test to show how carbon dioxide could be injected and trapped deep underground. It's an experiment led by the Pacific Northwest National Lab.
Injection of fifty tanker truck loads of CO2 will take about four weeks. Then comes about a year and a half of monitoring to see if the global warming gas stays locked away forever beneath ancient lava flows. The viability of carbon capture and storage can spark lively debate among climate scientists, activists and industry.
Carbon dioxide is one of the main culprits in warming the planet. The U.S. Department of Energy is financing research around the country to show how the greenhouse gas could be captured and then banished deep underground. One long planned, small scale field test is now underway in basalt rock formations between Pasco and Umatilla, Washington.
Lee Spengler was one of the speakers to welcome the media and invited guests to view a tangle of pipes, compressors, and temporary storage tanks last Friday. Spengler directs the Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership.
"This is the first time pure CO2 has been injected into basalts in the field," Spengler said. "So it's very exciting to be a part of this."
To be fair, researchers in Iceland injected CO2 for permanent storage in basaltic rocks several years earlier, but dissolved the gas in water prior to injection.
Spengler and scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Lab explained how they expect the global warming gas to crystallize and turn into an immobile solid at the depth of half a mile.
"We estimate there is up to 300 years of storage for our six state region in the basalts that occur in these Northwestern states," Spengler says.
The injection well was drilled next to a pulp and paper mill owned by Boise Inc. The Wallula mill along the Columbia River ranks twenty fifth on the Washington Department of Ecology's state list of biggest industrial emitters of greenhouse gases.
But Boise spokesman Destry Henderson says the carbon dioxide for this field test is being trucked in from far away. It's presently impractical to capture CO2 from the paper mill's stacks.
"Right now it requires an enormous capital expense and there isn't a market for carbon credits," Henderson says. "So we're doing the scientific study right now. We need to do the economic study down the road. What is important is if the science doesn't work, we can't do the economic study."
Henderson says Boise paper is happy to host the carbon storage experiment on its property to demonstrate environmental commitment.
But will this concept ever be commercially viable? That's been a longstanding question. One climatologist who's looked at carbon capture and storage (CCS) experiments in Europe is Professor Stefan Rahmstorf. He works at the Institute for Climate Impact Research in Potsdam, Germany. Already in 2009, he shared expressed his doubts.
"It looks like a very cumbersome technology," Rahmstorf said. "You have to collect it at the plant. It's very energetically expensive to get the CO2 out of the exhaust fumes."
Then you'd have to transport the greenhouse gas to the remote underground storage location.
"Big pipeline infrastructure, you know," says Rahmstorf. "All that translates into big costs. I think the technology race between CCS and renewables will be won by the renewables. That would be my personal feeling about this."
Over in Seattle, the environmental director of the conservative-leaning Washington Policy Center is willing to give carbon storage a chance.
"The problem with climate change is that the politicians get enamored of a few big ideas," says Todd Myers. "But the way that we're going to reduce carbon is not with a few big ideas. It's with a lot of small and varied ideas. We need a diversity of things. This adds to that diversity of options, which I think is fantastic."
Myers finds it ironic that some environmentalists opposed the Pacific Northwest National Lab's carbon storage test in the early going. Those critics feared the technology could be an enabler for a new coal fired power plant along the Columbia River. But the power plant developer eventually went away and so did the local opposition.
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