GILLETTE, Wyo. Northeastern Wyoming’s rolling prairie lands have provided a sanctuary for cattle, sheep and the pronghorn antelope in this summer.
But it’s a different green — greener energy — that geologist Fred McLaughlin seeks as he drills nearly two miles (3. 2 kilometers) into the ground, far deeper than the thick coal seams that make this the top coal-mining region in the United States. McLaughlin and his University of Wyoming colleagues are studying whether tiny spaces in rock deep underground can permanently store vast volumes of greenhouse gas emitted by a coal-fired power plant.
This is the concept known as carbon storage, long touted as an answer to global warming that preserves the energy industry’s burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity.
Until now, it has been impossible to remove carbon dioxide from power plants and transport it underground without having higher electricity bills. But with a $2. 5 billion infusion from Congress last year and now bigger tax incentives through the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress on Friday, researchers and industry continue to try. McLaughlin’s goal is to prolong the life of Dry Fork Station (a new coal-fired power station), which Basin Electric Power Cooperative owns. Officials in Wyoming hope that it will also do so for Wyoming’s struggling coal industry. The state produces about 40% of the nation’s coal but declining production and a series of layoffs and bankruptcies have beset the Gillette area’s vast, open-pit coal mines over the past decade. McLaughlin, others and the economy of carbon storage are still uncertain. However, McLaughlin is confident in this technology.
” The geology is there,” McLaughlin stated. “It is a resource we’re looking for — and the resource is pore space.”
HOW IT WORKS
By pore space, McLaughlin doesn’t mean skin care but microscopic spaces between grains of sandstone deep underground. Countless such spaces add up: Enough, he hopes, to hold 55 million tons (50 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide over 30 years.
McLaughlin and his team used the same drill rigs as the oil industry to bore their two wells almost 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), taking core samples from nine geological formations in the process. The researchers will study how injection at one well, using saltwater as a stand-in for liquid carbon dioxide, could affect fluid behavior at the other.
” “It’s basically a call-and-response, if that is what you like to see,” McLaughlin stated. “We can ground truth our simulations.”
McLaughlin’s team also does a lot of lab work on carbon sequestration back at the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources in Laramie, studying on a microscopic scale how much carbon dioxide different sandstone layers can hold. Computers are used to calculate how much carbon dioxide could be underground, north of Gillette, for each well.
Eventually they want to advance to carbon dioxide captured from the smoke plume at nearby Dry Fork Station, using a technique developed by California-based Membrane Technology and Research, Inc.
WYOMING’S CARBON DREAMS
With an eye toward carbon storage, Wyoming in 2020 became one of just two states, along with North Dakota, to take over from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency primary authority to issue the kind of permit McLaughlin and his team will need to pump large volumes of carbon dioxide, pressurized into a high density “supercritical” state, underground. The geologists will need additional funding in addition to the permit. The U.S. Department of Energy Carbon Storage Assurance Facility Enterprise (CarbonSAFE) program is funding 24 carbon capture and storage projects nationwide, and this is one of the furthest along.
Such projects were likely already eligible for some of the roughly $2. 5 billion in last year’s infrastructure bill. Now the new Inflation Reduction Act will boost the “45Q” tax credit for electricity producers who sequester their carbon from $50 to $85 per ton. Underground mining of carbon dioxide is not a new practice. Since the 1970s, oil and gas companies have used carbon dioxide to replenish aging oil fields.
UNTIL NOW, FAILED EXPERIMENTS
Critics, however, point out the process is expensive to use at power plants and provides a lifeline of sorts to the coal, oil and natural gas industries when the world, in their view, should stop using fossil fuels altogether.
To date, only one commercially-operational, large-scale project in the U.S. has pumped carbon dioxide from a power plant underground. To offset costs, NRG Energy’s Petra Nova co-fired power station outside Houston sold its carbon dioxide in order to boost local oil production.
After three years in operation, Petra Nova closed in 2020, when low oil prices made using the gas to recharge a nearby oil field unprofitable.
In December, a U.S. Government Accountability Office review found that Petra Nova was the only one of eight carbon capture and storage projects at coal-fired plants to actually go into operation, after getting $684 million in Department of Energy funding since 2009.
There are communities who have been dealing for many years with industrial pollution and worry about companies using carbon storage promises to help them grow.
For Massachusetts Institute of Technology research engineer Howard Herzog, a carbon capture and storage pioneer, the question isn’t whether the technique is technically feasible at scale. It is, he says. It is not clear, however, if it will be financially feasible.
“People are starting to take it more seriously even though fundamentally changing our energy systems is not an easy task,” Herzog said. “It’s not something you do in the short term. You’ve got to really set the policy in place and we still haven’t really done that.”
It may be expensive, said Herzog. But doing nothing when it comes to climate, “may be much more expensive.”
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