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Field Test Renews Attention on Viability of Carbon Storage

PNNL scientist Pete McGrail describes CO2 injection underway behind him on the grounds of the Boise Inc. paper mill in Wallula, Wash.
Tom Banse

This week, technicians in southeast Washington are moving forward with a field test to show how carbon dioxide could be injected and trapped deep underground.

Led by the Pacific Northwest National Lab, the experiment involves the injection of 50 tanker-truck loads of carbon dioxide, and 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. 

Carbon dioxide: that's what makes your soft drink fizz. When CO2 comes out tailpipes and smokestacks and builds up in the atmosphere, it's 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 under way in basalt rock formations between Pasco and Umatilla.

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. So it's very exciting to be a part of this,’ Spengler said.

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 said.

The injection well was drilled next to a pulp and paper mill owned by Boise Inc. The Wallula mill along the Columbia River ranks 25th 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. 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 said.

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 has 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 his doubts with me.

"It looks like a very cumbersome technology. You have to collect it at the plant. It's very energetically expensive to get the CO2 out of the exhaust fumes,” Rahmstorf said.

Then you'd have to transport the greenhouse gas to the remote underground storage location.

"Big pipeline infrastructure, you know. 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,” Rahmstorf said.

Over in Seattle, Todd Myers, 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. 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 said.

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.

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.