A hole in the ground: Storing carbon dioxide thousands of feet below Illinois

By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 6:00 am Fri, Dec 2, 2011

One blazing hot afternoon in August of 2010, I stood on a mountain top in Alabama, staring at a styrofoam beer cooler upended over the top of a metal pole. Alongside me were a couple dozen sweaty engineers and geologists. That beer cooler was one of the few visible signs of the research project happening far below our feet.

Over the course of two months, scientists from the University of Alabama had injected 278 tons of carbon dioxide into the Earth. The goal was to keep it there forever, locked in geologic formations. The beer cooler was a key part of that plan. Beneath it sat the delicate electronic components of the monitoring system the scientists were using to make sure none of the captured carbon dioxide found its way out of the mountain. Beer coolers, it turns out, make great low-cost heat protection.

Carbon capture and storage—the process of removing carbon dioxide from factory and power plant emissions and trapping it where it can't reach the atmosphere—is an interesting idea. It has the potential to help us make our current energy systems cleaner as we work on building more sustainable systems for the future. With that in mind, the Department of Energy has seven regional research teams testing carbon capture and storage at sites around the United States.

So far, nobody in the United States has put this full process to the test at the scale that would be necessary in the real world. But, in the past couple of weeks, scientists at the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium began pumping carbon dioxide at a new site, one that is going to give us our best picture yet of what full-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be like.

Two hundred and seventy-eight tons might sound like a lot of carbon dioxide. It's not. An average-sized coal power plant will produce 3 million metric tons of CO2 in a year. The infrastructure used at the Alabama site I visited can't be easily scaled up to meet a need like that.

More important, the Alabama project didn't test out the full CCS process. The carbon dioxide stored there didn't come from man-made sources. At least, not like we think of them. Instead, it's naturally occurring CO2, collected by breaking down carbonate rocks. This CO2 is sold for industrial purposes. It's used in some advanced oil and gas recovery techniques. It makes your soda fizzy. And, with exactly two exceptions, it's been the CO2 that's been stored at carbon capture and storage research sites. The Alabama scientists bought CO2, trucked it across the country, compressed it, and pumped it into a hole in the ground.

That sounds a little ridiculous. But there aren't a lot of other options. Big talk and PR aside, the vast majority of coal fired power plants in the United States don't remove carbon dioxide from their emissions. There's no financial incentive to make them want to take on the investment of installing the right equipment.

The new Midwestern carbon storage site, near Decatur, Illinois, is different. First, it's one of the biggest projects ever undertaken. Over the next three years, 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide will be pumped into rock formations underground. There's only one other site in the country operating at that scale.

Next, the Midwestern site will be the second project, ever, to store carbon dioxide drawn from an actual energy-producing factory. The first, in West Virginia, was much, much smaller. This makes a big difference in how the project operates. Instead of trucking CO2 in from out of state, the carbon dioxide buried beneath Decatur will arrive in a pipeline, sent from a nearby ethanol refinery.

It's not quite the scale of a real-world CCS system. But this is how a real-world system would work. For the first time, instead of just looking at individual parts, we're going to see the whole thing in action.

How It Works

You take carbon dioxide and you pump it into a hole in the ground. That's the fast explanation. But, in reality, carbon capture and storage is really not that flippant.

For one thing, it's not just any old hole in the ground.

Robert Finley, director of the Advanced Energy Technology Initiative at the Illinois State Geological Survey and one of the scientists working on the Decatur project, says the process of choosing the site began in 2003 with a survey of the entire Illinois Basin. The final site was chosen because of specific geologic features that make it naturally conducive to storing compressed gas.

At Decatur, compressed CO2, in the form of a liquid-like supercritical fluid, is sent down a pipe 7000 feet below ground to a layer of porous sandstone called Mt. Simon Sandstone. The supercritical fluid flows into those pores mingling with and displacing the brine that exists there naturally. If there were nothing but sandstone, you could expect the CO2 to travel back up and out of the Earth. However, above the sandstone sits a caprock. Three caprocks, actually. They're all made from impermeable shale. The sandstone gives the CO2 a place to sit, the shale keeps it there. It's the same kind of features that hold natural gas deposits in place for millions of years.

The CO2 will sit there for somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand years, Finley says, until it mineralizes. Essentially, it will become the same kind of rock that's broken down today to make the CO2 stored beneath Alabama.

What Are the Risks?

This is where carbon capture and storage gets complicated.

Physically, the risks are not massive, but they do exist. These storage systems are based on how nature stores gas and liquids. They use the same geologic rules. Finley says that you can almost think of it as drilling for oil and natural gas in reverse. Instead of pumping stuff out of these natural reservoirs, we're pumping stuff into them.

It is not common to find natural reservoirs in the United States that have failed, he says. Jed Clampett aside, oil and gas are normally discovered via lots of digging, not because somebody ran across a spot where the oil or gas was seeping out of the Earth. But while it might not be common, it does happen. Western New York state, for instance, is home to multiple "eternal flames," spots where natural gas has escaped its geologic prison and made it to the surface.

The Decatur site was chosen partly because it provides a good opportunity to catch a leak like that before it could do any damage. The carbon dioxide is being stored at 7000 feet underground. The useable groundwater sits at 150 feet down. In between are the caprocks and, at 5500 feet—just above the first caprock—there's a monitoring system, watching for signs of leaks.

So what happens if and when a carbon storage site springs a leak? The primary concerns are really A) groundwater quality and B) that you've just wasted a lot of money capturing and storing carbon dioxide that's now leaking back into the atmosphere.

Most researchers don't think a leak from a reservoir is likely to cause any loss of life. There's a reason for that. When you think, "Carbon dioxide disaster," you probably think about Lake Nyos. In 1986, this volcanic lake essentially burped, releasing a huge bubble of carbon dioxide from the lake bottom that asphyxiated humans and animals for miles around. That's not the kind of leak you get from underground reservoirs. Think of it as the difference between a balloon popping and a balloon slowly deflating over the course of a week. Those natural gas seeps in New York aren't killing people.

When scientists worry about dangerous carbon dioxide leaks from CCS sites, they worry about the piping. If the pipeline going down a well were to catastrophically fail, and if the flow of gas wasn't turned off, and if the prevailing winds and local surface geography were just right, you could, conceivably, end up with a potentially deadly cloud of CO2. This is the point where reasonable people have room to disagree. Some, including Robert Finley, look at all those "ifs" and see an extremely unlikely scenario that can be avoided by good planning and site selection. But not everybody is going to be comforted by that.

Honestly, though, I think the biggest problem with CCS isn't so much physical as it is ideological. The risk is that carbon capture and storage could be pushed as THE solution to our energy problems. And it really, really isn't.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but chief among them is the fact that there is not an unlimited supply of good sites for storing captured CO2. The Decatur site could take a lot more than 1 million metric tons. Finley says there's room for 10s of millions of tons down there. And there are lots of potential sites scattered across the United States. But there are more than 400 coal-fired power plants in the country, as well, each producing several million tons of CO2 per year. Carbon capture and storage is not a license to go on using coal indefinitely. Likewise, there are some parts of the country where finding a good site is going to be difficult. New England, for instance, is sitting on top of a lot of non-porous granite, Finley says.

Think of CCS like a Prius hybrid. It's a cleaner car to drive than, say, a 1978 Impala. Back in 2000, it was really your only choice if you wanted a car and you wanted it to be cleaner. Hybrid cars are a nice way to bridge the gap between all-gas and all-electric. But they aren't the endgame. If we want a more sustainable future, we eventually have to replace the hybrids completely. Same thing here.

Meanwhile, while we're controlling that risk, there's also a risk that you could have a perfectly workable CCS system that never gets used at a commercial scale, leaving dirty coal plants that dirty when they could be a lot cleaner. Why hasn't this technology been used at full-scale yet? It's complicated, but the biggest reason is that there haven't been a lot of companies interested in doing that.

It's telling that Finley gives props to Archer Daniels Midland, the company that owns the ethanol plant, for being interested in working on this project at all and for providing CO2 free of charge. In the past, they've sold that CO2 to make soda and dry ice. Clean coal is an industry buzzword, but it's rare to find coal plants that want to make that happen immediately. About the only place is in Texas' Permian Basin, where some soon-to-be-built power plants have been sited near oil and gas drilling operations, with the goal of selling CO2 to the fossil fuel industry for advance recovery operations.

Industry doesn't have much interest in CCS. And it won't, Finley says, until there's a price on carbon dioxide emissions. That's the thing that will incentivize companies into capturing their carbon. Until then, carbon capture and storage is likely to remain the domain of scientists, something that happens in demonstration projects, but not in the real world.

Image: A flexible tube for carrying CO2 at Germany's "Schwarze Pumpe" power plant. This small demonstration project, which came online in 2008, is the first power plant in the world to remove carbon emissions from its exhaust and bury them in the ground. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Published 6:00 am Fri, Dec 2, 2011

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

61 Responses to “A hole in the ground: Storing carbon dioxide thousands of feet below Illinois”

  1. cpm5280 says:

    What a great piece. You rock so hard, Maggie. :)

  2. awjt says:

    Dangit, was hoping for a pic of the beer cooler!

  3. Trent Baker says:

    Storing excess CO2 is a good idea, but storing it somewhere pretty inaccessible seems like a mistake, because when we figure out how to convert the CO2 back into fuel it will be the new oil.

    • Dave Jenkins says:

      Trent Baker,

      I’m not sure how much organic chemistry you had in school, but CO2 as a fuel is almost impossible.  The energy state of the chemical bonds is such that breaking them apart _requires_ energy, not releasing energy (like methane or propane or gasoline).  Plants use it as a susbtrate for their energy cycle, but the actual energy is coming in from the sun.

      CO2 cannot be a fuel.

      • AbleBakerCharlie says:

        I think you misunderstand. No one is proposing using CO2 as an energy source- they are proposing using it as a source of carbon for synthetic fuels, using energy derived from sunlight or nuclear power. There’s a whole family of clever photocatalysts and thermal cracking processes and reducing alloys that are being pursued for going from CO2 and water to the mixture of CO and H2 called synthesis gas that you can then use to manufacture liquid hydrocarbons in processes that are the better part of a century old. It’s one of the farther-out processes, but it’s something that has been lusted after for fifty years (often as a corollary to something like fusion power.) Still in relative infancy, but interesting nevertheless- lots of the issues with both the technical inertia (and occasional irreplacibility) of fossil fuels and the poor siting and intermittent nature of solar go away if you can just drop a panel in a sunny field and it just steadily fills up a tank with jet fuel.

    • CLamb says:

      We know how to convert it to a fuel.  In fact farmers use the process all the time.

  4. silkox says:

    The real problem is thermodynamics: the oxidation of hydrocarbons releases so much energy partly because of the huge increase in entropy as large molecules are turned into lots and lots of small ones — the carbon dioxide and water in exhaust. Forcing the carbon dioxide molecules back together uses lots of energy. This is called parasitic load, and it’s on the order of 30% of the power released by the burning in the first place.

    • Bil dos says:

      yes!..lets burn 4 piles of coal to make 3 clean…I have followed the research and debate for about 5 years, reading everything new and have come to the conclusion that; nothing is new…..

  5. silkox says:

    If all this effort and money is going into “mak[ing] our current energy systems cleaner as we work on building more sustainable systems for the future,” what are some examples of equivalent amounts of money and effort that are going into actually building more sustainable systems for the future?

  6. eerd says:

    The biggest obstacle for CCS-equipped power plants at the moment, so people have told me, seems to be that the amount of energy it takes to carry out the work consumes a lot of the power generated.

    The big potential for storage must surely be in depleted hydrocarbon reservoirs, such as the North Sea. Injecting the CO2 could allow more energy to be produced and also – as you say – such reservoirs are good at trapping gas.

    Norway’s Statoil is doing some interesting stuff with it, at Sleipner and in Algeria (with BP and Sonatrach) at In Salah.

    Even with a carbon price, though, it’s not always enough. The UK just dropped its plans for CCS at Longannet.

    • Purplecat says:

      The Longannet decision was purely political, though. It wasn’t based on the price, because without the right legislation backing it up, CCS is never going to compete with “dump all the CO2 in the atmosphere”.

  7. videobored says:

    Very interesting article, but this seems like such a band-aid solution that I just can’t get excited about it. I’m all about combating the problem however we can, but there has to be a better option. “Let’s bury it in the ground!” sounds like primitive thinking to me, although I do applaud the creative use of beer coolers. 

    • Ryan Lenethen says:

      Considering that much of the CO2 produced comes from Oil (or even gas) which is taken out of the ground, it does strike me as an elegant and simple solution to the problem. However the real issue is there are only so many places one can sequester carbon in this way. Once they are full, then what?

      Also this may be new for the USA, but not for the world.

  8. Robert Moffitt says:

    Nice article. My one complaint is that it failed to mention the source of the carbon dioxide. It’s a local ethanol plant, right?

  9. Erik Rook says:

    Maggie, I have a web crush on you.  Your articles are reliably awesome.

  10. Lobster says:

    In geology, there’s no such thing as “forever.”

  11. awjt says:

    No harm done. Ironically, caffeine can be removed from coffee beans with a supercritical extraction process using CO2!  (Feeling supercritical lately?  I am.  Time for more coffee.)

  12. MinistryOfInfo says:

    It is not common to find natural reservoirs in the United States that have failed

    I’m not sure I entirely follow the logic of that.  How do we know whether failure isn’t incredible common, and that most leaked away millenia ago?  Maybe it’s uncommon for the (hypothetical) minority which remain to leak, but how do we know whether viable reservoirs aren’t themselves incredibly rare?

  13. What would be cool is if we could combine carbon sequestration with  some kind of lower intensity natural gas fracking.

    Carbon dioxide goes down, natural gas comes up. Solve two problems at once,

    • There wasn’t room to get into that here, but that’s basically what I’m talking about when I’m talking about “advanced natural gas recovery techniques.” In fact, the site in Alabama was testing that very concept. In that case, you’ve got methane bound to a thin coal seam. CO2 is more strongly attracted to the coal seam so when you send it down it shoves the methane aside and takes its place. Then, the methane is free to be pumped up. 

      On the other hand, there’s a lot of good reasons to not see “weee, more natural gas and oil!” as a problem solved. 

      • Millo Lopez says:

        You really did your homework! Everything is well explained in detail but still pretty concise. And you didn’t oversimplify things.

        Good Job!

    • Millo Lopez says:

      Like Maggie explained, CO2 (as well as other gases and water) IS used to displace hydrocarbons out of a reservoir.

      However fracking is completely different in that instead of pumping slowly so that the gas/fluid is absorbed into the porosity of the rock, it is pumped very quickly and at very high pressure in order to create a big fracture through which the hydrocarbons in the ground can then flow towards the well more easily. It is performed when the rock in a reservoir contains hydrocarbons but it just can’t flow through it very well because of low permeability.

  14. nixiebunny says:

    Darn it, why does no one ever suggest “don’t use so much energy” as a solution for the problem of using so much energy? Surely that would be a more productive solution than this business of mitigating one of the many deleterious effects of using so much energy.

    • John Harland says:

      Finding more energy is easier than making things use less energy, probably.

      • Wrong. So very wrong. 

        Not to be a pill, here, but if you read my upcoming book about the future of energy, (pre-order now on Amazon! http://www.amazon.com/Before-Lights-Go-Out-Conquering/dp/0470876255/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1322859343&sr=8-1) I do point out that energy efficiency is our greatest, cheapest tool in the effort to create a more sustainable world.

        And that’s true for everybody. It’s true for us. And it’s true for developing countries. What we all want are the services energy provides. Quantities of fossil fuels burned and emissions produced are side-effects of that, not equivalents. It’s easy to get the services for less. Far easier and cheaper than it is to find more energy. 

        I didn’t mention that in this article, because this is an article about one, specific technology and, frankly, I can’t talk about everything that’s important in every single article. 

    • Kevin611 says:

      A long story short, China, India, and he rest of the developing world are starting to enjoy energy intensive technologies.

      So, even if everyone in the US brought their energy consumption down, the net total energy consumption and CO2 output would still grow.

      On the bright side, everyone can choose to use less energy in their own personal lives. Less flying, less driving, less appliances plugged in, less internet usage, and less processed foods. Not that I advocate any of those things.

      • Marc Mielke says:

        “Less flying, less driving, less appliances plugged in, less internet usage, and less processed foods. ”
        That’s not a solution, that’s a horror story. A world without technology is no world I want any part of.

        • Kevin611 says:

          I don’t want any part of it, nor does anyone else. Unfortunately, I doubt that it’s possible to find enough places to store “excess” CO2.

          On the other hand, it’s always possible that we shouldn’t worry so much about a trace gas in the atmosphere.

    • Lobster says:

      Because people are looking for realistic solutions.

    • efergus3 says:

      And if you stop breathing entirely, you’ll make so much less CO2 for the rest of us to cope with. Thanks ahead of time.

    • Don’t be an idiot. Googling “energy conservation” gives 24.5 million hits.

  15. we_the_people324 says:

    One Question, Earthquakes?

    Why not research ways to sequester carbon in other molecular ways so that its an inert solid, or even better, devise ways to sequester co2 that mimic nature, so that in thyme it will migrate back into the natural carbon cycle, while not increasing atmospheric co2 levels?

    I can just see it now, massive earthquake, releases large amounts of co2 gas stored underground, then asphyxiates whole towns/cities near the storage cites.

  16. grs says:

    Industry doesn’t have much interest in CCS. And it won’t, Finley says, until there’s a price on carbon dioxide emissions. That’s the thing that will incentivize companies into capturing their carbon.

    Not that it could be done with all CO2, but ethanol plants have started building dry ice production facilities for their CO2 to make some money and get rid of the waste. (DNRTA in case this was mentioned already.)

    CO2 sequestration doesn’t concern me too much. Deep injection wells for hazardous waste scare the crap out of me for many, many reasons.

  17. RJ says:

    I have what is probably a relatively simple question:
    Why are they attempting to bury the CO2 when we all know that, sooner or later, it’s going to escape? I understand the idea of putting there as a temporary solution, but consider how much work goes into this.

    For a similar investment of labor, would it be possible to build a gigantic facility (or network of facilities) which basically function as enormous, Boeing facility-sized  sealed greenhouses? A few tons of CO2 could be pumped-in while O2 is pumped out, leaving the flora inside bathed in the stuff. Then, through natural aspiration, the CO2 is converted into O2, which can be safely released into the atmosphere.

    Or am I just reeeally not understanding how this stuff works? I acknowledge having zero insight into organic chemistry, so I realize my idea might sound retarded to someone who knows.

    • AbleBakerCharlie says:

      It’s not so much about organic chemistry as it is about scale. You’re essentially talking about making a very efficient farm. Natural ecosystems of course fix lots of carbon, but they aren’t very efficient per unit area, because that’s not their goal- in nature, carbon stashed anywhere is really stored food, to be consumed directly by a plant or by any other hungry critter. So, you can artificial up the storage efficiency by preventing the plants from being eaten, or rotting, or stopping their growth by harvesting them and sticking them somewhere- there have been proposals to selectively log forests and bury them in bogs to do just that. And of course, you can work the other side of the equation too and grow them faster, up to the level of intervention you describe, where you keep them warm and give them all the concentrated CO2 they could want.

      In the end, though, you’re still talking about replacing the whole carbon economy with plants, either as substitute biofuels or as carbon stock you store somewhere, and it takes a lot of plants. To give you an idea, reversing the carbon concentration increase to date would take about a trillion trees- which works out to a forest about the size of Russia. You can start down your road, of using more efficient plants like algae, and interrupting their life cycle so they don’t rot, and growing them under intensive conditions with greenhouses and concentrated gases, and the requisite area keeps dropping- as the requisite capital keeps going up.

      So, the answer is, yes, biological solutions can certainly participate. But it’s not of a case of “why don’t we do this simple green thing instead of this scary industrial thing,” it’s “here are two industrial things that are scary for different reasons- how much of each would you like?”

      And of course none of this matters if there’s not a framework where people pay  for their carbon.

    • peted66616 says:

      According to the article, the CO2 needs to be contained for “only” “a few hundred to a few thousand years”. That’s how long they claim it will take for the CO2 to become “mineralized” (i.e. become incorporated into rocks).

      If (and that’s a big “if”) that’s true, then while there’s some non-zero risk of leakage, it’s not an indefinite risk.

      Of course, maintaining some CO2 reservoir for even a few hundred years is pretty iffy itself. There aren’t very many public works programs with that kind of longevity. And the idea that we’re capable of a commitment lasting a few thousand years seems incredible to me.

      Another mitigating factor is, assuming the claim that CO2 leaks in this context would be relatively slow, is that with proper monitoring a leak could be detected and addressed before it significantly affects the viability of the solution. Again, this depends on a proper social commitment to continue the maintenance, but it’s at least technically feasible in theory.

  18. AbleBakerCharlie says:

    I’ve never really liked the gaseous storage variants much. Too many point processes that are contingent on luck or substantial retrofitting. The formations can be few and far between, you need to either gather at the stack or devote a large effort to scrubbers (I actually prefer the latter because it addresses mobile emissions) and then the formations are invariably leaky. They start to run into scaling issues too. The sequestration schemes that seem to have a bit more going for them are the accelerated weathering schemes, where we essentially step into the back half of the geological carbon cycles just as we have in the front- CO2 is naturally released by volcanoes and then natural extracted from the atmosphere by the weathering of volcanic rock, a process that transforms the CO2 into carbonate minerals like limestone and travertine. Rather than looking for specialized underground formations, all you need is basalt- and the world has plenty of basalt- and the product is just more rock, and given that the Earth already stores something like 90 atmospheres of CO2 as carbonates already, a few ppm is rather irrelevant. We’ve accelerated the first half of the cycle by extracting and burning geological carbon, but we can accelerate the second half as well in a number of clever ways, by creating improved reaction conditions or using intermediates that are easier to haul around than carbon or react faster. There’s one very clever scheme that uses the production of hydrochloric acid from sea water- turns out that if you sum all the reactions, making HCl (it’s a benign process) and reacting it with basalt to make salt systemically averages out to sequestering carbon, with the whole ocean serving in it’s natural role as collector and directly addressing reef-killing ocean acidification to boot.

    I’m always a little puzzled when something like this comes up and there is an inevitable refrain along the lines of “jeez, why don’t we just use less energy?,” which pretty well telegraphs that the scale of the problem is not getting through. All the IPCC targets are going to be run over before you have a chance to get a new car, much less for the grid to be replaced, and there are billions of people in the global civilization that will, and should be consuming much much *more* energy- because energy consumption broadly scales against infant mortality and longevity and access to nutrition and so forth- and said people in general are staring at catalogs of cheap cars and power plants in one hand, and 200 year coal deposits on the other, and we have neither the means nor the moral authority to stop them. The world will heat up long before it runs out of carbon fuel.

    Make no mistake, I think indefinite civilization is going to take a energetic transition as dramatic as that from wood to coal, and I have reason to hope- and actively work for- such a transition happening more rapidly and more comfortably than we expect, and along the way we better, or ought, to come to a next-generation consensus about how we want our cities to look, and where our food will come from, and so forth, that’ll make daily life a little less energy intensive. But more than all that, I don’t want the reefs to dissolve, and the ice sheets to melt, and the Sahara to swallow a continent, and all that depends not on a particular aesthetic of the future, but on getting the CO2 out of the bloody air, by whatever means necessary.

  19. Sean Bish says:

    This…is an extremely terrible idea.  Anyone familiar with the Lake Nyos “Exploding lake” phenomenon knows that creating any situation where a liquid substrate (ground water) can super-absorb carbon dioxide can result in that carbon dioxide seeping back up to the surface with the liquid water, and result in an explosive release of carbon dioxide, that could suffocate thousands.  Was this risk really considered?  In the case of Lake Nyos, it suffocated and wiped out whole mountain villages, and a thousand plus people!

    • Lake Nyos is a very, very different geologic scenario from these carbon storage sites. They aren’t really comparable. As I explained in the article, there is risk associated with the piping. But if a leak happened from the geologic reservoir itself, it wouldn’t be like Lake Nyos because it’s a completely different geology.

    • Millo Lopez says:

      Kindly refer to the section of the article that specifically states this is nothing like Lake Nyos.

  20. peteraardvark says:

    Some low tech solutions on co2 storage,  take a lesson from World War II my father growing up in Europe recalled that the Germans drove cars and trucks on woodgas there were over a million vehicles converted to run on it. Not suggesting we do that with cars, rather here in British Columbia there are 15million hectares of dying pine-beetle damaged trees (an area the size of the UK).
    We could built power plants to pyrolize the wood and use the woodgas to generate electricity as needed and the byproducts, tar etc for other things and finally the charcoal that is left behind can be buried either back in the forest or on agricultural land and improving it in the process.  

    The pine-beetle has been spreading the past 20 years thanks to a warmer climate. There aren’t enough sufficiently cold days in winter to kill the larvae.  This would be a win for everyone – jobs where the mills are closing and  clean energy and storage of energy and improved soil.  

    Those trees are dying and will give of co2 in the process, so this is a way to utilize them and the area is so vast there is no way we could harvest them all anyway.  Bio-char is one of the ways of natural sequestration that could actually make a difference.

    It could also be done with farm waste and garbage.

    The second low tech and natural way to deal with c02 sequestration is through grass farming – ie. Polyface Farms – they raise cattle, pigs, chickens etc also using a natural cycle. The cattle are grass fed – they graze on specific area marked out by movable fencing after several days of grazing and fertilizing the soil  they are moved and chickens are brought in which eat the larvae from the droppings before they hatch etc. When a perennial crop such as grass is cut or grazed on the surface it sheds and equivalent amount of root matter – this is also a way of sequestering c02. You don’t need to till the soil and fertilize it for grass and you get better tasting beef and healthier livestock (rather than feeding them corn which they don’t digest easily and require antibiotics etc)

    looking forward to reading your book Maggie,
    Petr

  21. peteraardvark says:

    Also wanted to add that Weyburn Saskatchewan has been doing this as an experiment for the last 11 years.
    http://www.ptrc.ca/weyburn_overview.php

    Regarding c02 leaks and the risk to people – yes there is the Lake Nyos disaster in Africa, but 
    there are places in Africa where the c02 seeps out and because it is heavier it settles low to the ground. While adults are not in danger, small children sometimes suffocate and die because they are closer to the ground.  Don’t have a link or anything, but it was in some documentary about Africa. C02 can kill very quickly, there are many cases of people walking into a confined space and collapsing and dying immediately.  There was an incident in BC where two men died in a fermentation tank at a winery. The first one passed out and fell in and the second one tried to rescue him.

    Perhaps a less expensive solution might be to have algae biodiesel plants setup next to coal plants using the heat and co2 to grow algae. Then harvest the biodiesel and simply bury the left over plant material. No danger of leak and you get a second use of the c02.

  22. Listok Vremeni says:

    1.« …7000 feet below ground to a layer of porous sandstone … supercritical fluid flows into those pores mingling with and displacing the brine that exists there naturally …
    above the sandstone sits a caprock… all made from impermeable shale… These storage
    systems are based on how nature stores gas and liquids».

    Supercritical fluid flows into porous sandstone and displacing the brine – it is variant of environmental man-made pollution with unpredictable consequences. In addition, in the nature no  “impermeable” materials.

    2.«…The CO2 will sit there for somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand
    years, Finley says, until it mineralizes…»

    This is just a hypothesis, which has not been proved by observations for a period of few hundred and a few thousand years.

    3.«…when a carbon storage site springs a leak? The primary concerns are really A)
    groundwater quality and B) that you’ve just wasted a lot of money capturing and storing carbon dioxide that’s now leaking back into the atmosphere…».

    The primary concerns -   the safety of people.

    4.«…Most researchers don’t think a leak from a reservoir is likely to cause any loss of
    life. There’s a reason for that.»

    Groundless and irresponsible opinion.

    5. «When you think… about Lake Nyos. In 1986… asphyxiated humans and animals for miles around. That’s not the kind of leak you get from underground reservoirs.»

    Mechanism of leakage of carbon dioxide (CO2), using  which was  caused the limnological catastrophes at Lake Nyos in 1986 and at Lake Monoun in 1984, is suitable for creating the catastrophes during  leakage CO2, which was injected into deep geological formations for long term storage .

    http://nyos.lv/en/nyos/mehanika-vkljuchenija-spuskovogo-mehanizma-31859

    http://nyos.lv/en/nyos/nios-limnologicheskaja-katastrofa-32235

    http://nyos.lv/ru/nyos/vlijanie-atmosfernyh-osadkov-na-gazovuju-kavitatsiju–v-donnom-osadke-otkrytogo-vodojoma-32263

    Twenty-five years, mankind can not eliminate CO2 leakage from deep geological strata in Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun.

    • penguinchris says:

      As a geologist – I think you’re right to have these concerns, but they are addressed in the article and I don’t think you’re giving the scientists involved in these projects enough credit (do you think you understand the science involved more than they do?). You call their opinion that it is safe “groundless” but it is in fact your concerns that are groundless!

      And again it must be emphasized that the geologic conditions at sites that are being used for this type of experiment are entirely unlike those at Lake Nyos!

      The site you link to is, uh, interesting…

      • Listok Vremeni says:

        You’re right ,  Maggie Koerth-Baker these problems  mentiones in the article. However,  when article mentiones these problems, the article calms reader: “don’t think a leak from a reservoir is likely to cause any loss of life…”. But nature’s  facts : proved on the lakes of Nyos and Monoun, that a leak CO2 from an underground reservoir is mortally dangerous. This a leak CO2 had caused death of almost two thousand people. Who from the scientists involved in these projects, studied the mechanism of a leak CO2 from an underground reservoir till bottom of the lakes Nyos and Monoun? French team studied
        the mechanism “lake overturn”

        http://mhalb.pagesperso-orange.fr/nyos/index.htm  .

        You’re right ,the geologic conditions at sites that are being used for this type of experiment
        are entirely unlike those at Lake Nyos. However, the mechanism of leakage of CO2 from underground tank till the underground water is the same. What is the reliability information
        about  of the impenetrability of the geological structures over large areas for many hundreds or thousands of years? Or we dont know   the natural and man-made processes that can destroy the continuity of geologic structures? What a catastrophes could occur during and after this process? Not so easy in this world! I respect your opinion, but the article does not convinces about the security CCS.

  23. penguinchris says:

    I’m from Western New York and I’m a geologist and I’ve been to a few “eternal flame” sites, and am very familiar with the first one from the linked article about them. The other one that’s mentioned there is apparently right behind my grandmother’s house – I’m very familiar with the creek there (and the really incredible waterfall where the old mill is) but didn’t know about the gas seep.

    Of course, there are presumably lots of these kinds of seeps in the area, most of which don’t actually stay lit very long and aren’t really “eternal flames” as such :)

    Here’s a photo from the article Maggie linked to of the most well-known gas seep in WNY – it’s underneath a waterfall: http://blogs.agu.org/magmacumlaude/files/2010/11/gas-seep-5.jpg

    Anyway, even in such a leaky area leakage of CO2 wouldn’t be a concern since it would go into much deeper reservoirs than the shallow ones that are leaking.

  24. Guest says:

    I do not understand the energy balace of this process. How much more CO2 do we have to produce to sequester that much CO2?

  25. V says:

    As  geologist, I can state conclusively that, yes, if several geologists are standing around a beer cooler, research is happening.

  26. Itsumishi says:

    My biggest concern with  CCS is less with whether it can work or not, but more that it is simply being used as an excuse not to shut down really polluting power plants. Its one thing to say, we’ve got 10 coal power plants, we can afford to build one replacement every 10 years and in the meantime we’ll build some CCS technology to make the operating plants less damaging. It’s another entirely to say we’ve got 10 coal power plants and now we don’t have to decommission any of them until they’re too old to operate.

    Unfortunately the second option is exactly what is happening in Australia right now, and I’m sure as hell its happening in plenty of other places too. 

    Intermittent solutions are beneficial, but only if they’re treated as intermittent solutions and not an end game.

  27. recoiled says:

    What about acidification?  When you put CO2 into a system, you easily create Carbonic Acid.  Weak, yes, but it is very capable of moving inert minerals such as arsenic and lead.  I use those two because I grew up in Missouri, study natural sequestration, and spent way to much time looking at the viburnum trend (lead mines) and Mississippian carbonates . 

    I understand that this is a different geological setting, but what geochemical data are being studied, and where can I get my hands on those papers?

  28. Andrew Bone says:

    To sequester or not to sequester, that was never the question.

    The proposed bury carbon dioxide ‘solution’ begs the question of what the ‘problem’ is exactly.

    Is sequestration a genuine chance to mitigate at least some of the greenhouse gas problem, or simply a tool for big business to quell fears and to reinforce their lobbying for business as usual? Following their outstanding success in creating a market ecosystem which thrives in a culture of political paralysis, is big business now turning to pseudo solutions in an attempt to pre-empt any legislative and market-based carbon disincentives, which threaten business as usual security?

    The energy industry has created a marketplace gambling on ‘waste leveraging’ – disturbingly reminiscent of infamously failed financial practices. Following the guiding hand of market forces, power supply companies have created a network of interdependent suppliers, not to ensure security of supply, but to ensure maximisation of profit. The system not only contains but actually relies on inherent inefficiencies. An example of this is the practice under which the Swiss import foreign electricity when cheap, using it to wastefully pump water up to mountain reservoirs, in order to reuse it to generate electricity at times of premium rates. All the time hiding such wastage economic practices behind a veneer of ‘green energy policies’.

    If business criteria are used as delimiting parameters, solutions are not possible, because they are the origin of the problem itself. It is unlikely that a disease will evolve to cure itself, if we want a simplistic metaphor. On the other hand, pathologists first study the pathogen before seeking a counter-measure.

    Pursuing this metaphor relentlessly, leads to visions of thinking being liberated laterally through thinktanks such as an institute for economic pathology. And the IPCC could be renamed the ‘Cassandra Institute’ for heightening the symbolic impact of their alarming reports.

    A characteristic of environmental issues is that the specific debate immediately becomes embroiled in ideological digressions. So it is the case with carbon sequestration, which is similar to any geoengineering ‘solution’, in that it seems to threaten a delay in making any genuine move towards a sustainable world in every sense. Our greatest danger perhaps is finding a half-way answer to the problem as defined by a vision of economic continuation, rather than economic sustainability. The solution is alluring in seeming to be in the right direction, but is alarming in its potential to pacify and distract the voice of dissent.

    Andrew Bone

  29. Sounds like something that’s going to literally blow up in our faces a few generations down the line.

  30. Lake Nyos is specifically mentioned in the article. As is the risk of catastrophic outgassing. 

  31. Antinous / Moderator says:

    Lake Nyos is specifically mentioned in the article. As is the risk of catastrophic outgassing.

    Catastrophic outgassing? Anything about me after eating dried apricots?

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