Burial for carbon dioxide?

NEW HAVEN, W.VA. — NEW HAVEN, W.Va. - Here amid a gravel parking lot on the grounds of a coal-fired power plant, researchers are looking nearly 10,000 feet into the Earth for a way to slow global warming.

The idea: to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air by burying it in the ground.


The $4.2 million test project, much of it financed by the Bush administration, is being watched by power companies and environmentalists alike as a potential solution to the warming of the Earth's atmosphere, which most scientists blame on the millions of tons of carbon dioxide released into the air each year by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.

"It's a brand new area of science and technology," says Curt White, head of carbon-storage research at a U.S. Department of Energy lab in Pittsburgh, "and one which we think has a very good chance of allowing America - and really the whole world - to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of CO2."


Last spring and summer, a team of scientists and engineers drilled the 9,190-foot well into an aquifer beneath an American Electric Power plant here and took samples from layers of the Earth. Researchers are analyzing the data to determine whether carbon dioxide can be safely injected and stored underground at the site, as well as other sites in the Ohio River Valley within hundreds of square miles.

The hope is to find a permeable layer that would accept large amounts of compressed CO2 and just above it, an impermeable layer that would prevent its escape, says Neeraj Gupta, research leader at Battelle laboratories in Columbus, Ohio, which is collaborating with the Energy Department on the project.

The technology for capturing and storing carbon dioxide - called sequestration - exists.

In Norway, where emissions of carbon dioxide are heavily taxed, a natural-gas producer is pumping it into a saline reservoir beneath the floor of the North Sea.

For more than three decades, U.S. oil companies have been pumping carbon dioxide down oil wells to push more oil out, and some are testing the concept of storing it underground.

In four U.S. plants, carbon dioxide is captured from fossil fuel-fired electric power generating stations and sold to companies that make carbonated drinks, dry ice and chemicals, White says.

But the technology is expensive, and until cost-cutting measures are found, capturing carbon dioxide for the purpose of permanently storing it underground would force substantial increases in electric bills.

The preferable method would be to separate the carbon dioxide from the fuel before it is burned, a process called gasification, which converts coal into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. U.S. utility companies and the energy department are collaborating on a $1 billion coal gasification project, FutureGen, to test new ways to generate electricity and store carbon.


If a power company were to build a new gasification plant with current technology, it would have to spend 25 percent more than it does to capture the carbon dioxide, estimated David Hawkins, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Using an existing plant, the switch would add 35 percent to 40 percent to the cost, he says. "It appears promising," he says. "The challenge is more of an economic one than a technical one."

Mere use of the technology would enable the industry to learn and develop ways to cut costs, Hawkins said, but without incentives, it would have little reason to make the investment.

"It's a chicken-and-egg situation," he says, advocating a program that combines limits on carbon dioxide emissions with incentives - including tax incentives or special grants - for using the technology in the first half-dozen plants.

"After that we think the costs will drop and it would be a very modest increase in electricity costs," he says.

However, some environmentalists and advocates of renewable energy worry that if carbon sequestration catches on, nations might abandon moves to increase energy efficiency and develop renewable resources, such as wind power.

Some environmentalists and researchers also are concerned that carbon dioxide could leak into aquifers that supply drinking water and raise the acidity of the water, allowing higher amounts of lead and other contaminants into to dissolve in the water. American Electric Power officials point out that drinking water supplies come from shallow areas 100 to 130 feet below ground - nearly 3,000 feet above the proposed depths for storing carbon dioxide.


Reduction of carbon dioxide emissions has become a worldwide goal but has put the Bush administration at odds with many other nations.

Carbon dioxide, released when fossil fuels are burned, builds in the atmosphere and prevents the Earth from losing heat. Scientists predict that global warming will produce droughts and melt glaciers and ice caps.

In response, most nations have approved the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty mandating that wealthy nations reduce emissions of carbon dioxide or other gases that cause global warming. President Bush has refused to join the treaty, saying it would hurt the U.S. economy and calling it unfair for not including poorer countries.

Burying the carbon dioxide, meanwhile, has become a high priority of the administration.

The Energy Department's goal, White says, is "to capture and store CO2 such that your electric bill does not go up more than 10 percent, that's the bottom line. We've very, very far from that. Yes, we have the technology to do it but it costs too much."

U.S. power companies know that while Americans will continue to burn fossil fuels, future regulations are likely.


"If you're looking at the future of coal, it's pivotal to the continuing operation of coal-fired plants to do something about carbon dioxide," says Chris Long, environmental coordinator of American Electric Power's New Haven plant, which puts out 8.1 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.