Deep, Deep Down
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YOU CAN ONLY CUT SO MUCH of the carbon
that the world spews out. At some point, you
have to figure out what to do with the rest of it.
Concern over carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions
isn’t exactly breaking news, but the focus has been
on reduction. Now a combination of pending
government regulations, stimulus money and
research grants is driving a growing number of
projects to sequester carbon. Around the world,
millions of tons of CO2 are being injected deep
inside landmasses rather than being released into
the atmosphere. The United Kingdom and
Norway, for example, launched a joint project in
June to examine ways to capture and store CO2
under the North Sea.
And in the United States, American Electric
Power’s nearly 30-year-old Mountaineer site is
set to debut as the world’s first coal-fired power
plant to capture and bury some of the CO2 it
Opponents of coal energy worry the $73 million
retool could mean polluted water supplies. If the
CO2 mixes with water underground and forms
carbonic acid, they say, it could leach poisonous
materials from rock deep underground that could
eventually seep out.
“There’s no evidence that burying carbon dioxide
in the earth is a better strategy than aggressively
pursuing other alternatives that clearly are better
for the environment and will in the long run be
less costly,” David H. Holtz, executive director of
Progress Michigan, an environmental group, told
The New York Times in September.
But project advocates say sequestering is a
relatively straightforward, safe process.
“It’s like drilling an oil well in reverse. Instead of
taking something out, we’re putting something in,”
says Rob Finley, director of the Advanced Energy
Technology Initiative, part of the Institute of
Natural Resource Sustainability at the University
of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, USA.
Looking to leverage the similarities, he recruited
people with experience in the oil and gas industry
to work on a project he’s overseeing to inject
1 million metric tons of CO2 into a deep saline
Last May, the team completed drilling a 7,230-
foot ( 2,204-meter) well and is now conducting a
baseline analysis of the environmental data and
impact to ground water, air and deep water wells
to prepare for the April 2010 CO2 injection. Far
deeper than a typical oil well, the site extends
beneath the granite at the bottom of the sandstone
basin and the CO2 will be stored under a second
layer of non-porous shale to prevent leaks.
“It makes sense to store the CO2 as far from
water sources and manmade penetrations as
possible,” Mr. Finley says. “When we go this
deep, we take advantage of the deepest
seals and we avoid any natural faults or
Despite all the precautions, he argues
CO2 is far less harmful than other toxins
that might accidentally seep into
groundwater or other natural reserves.
“It’s a non-poisonous, non-toxic
chemical that’s used in soda pop,” Mr.
Finley says. “It’s important that people
understand that compared to natural gas
pipelines this is much less dangerous.”
Drilling itself, however, is dangerous
work. Mr. Finley’s team conducted more
than 200 safety meetings during the
drilling phase, including a review of risks
and precautions prior to every task.
“It’s very much about being aware of
risks and managing those risks by considering every possible scenario,” he says.