There are several bills in the 61st Montana legislature dealing with various forms of carbon sequestration. A couple worthy of note are HB338 sponsored by Duane Ankney (R) of Colstrip and SB498 by Keith Bales (R) of Otter. HB338 deals with pipelines to carry CO2 to injection sites. The bill would give the pipelines “Common Carrier” status, thereby making them eligible for eminent domain over private property. SB498 deals with just how the state would regulate carbon sequestration. It gives the Board of Oil and Gas regulatory oversight of sequestration wells. It makes the well owner responsible for liability for the stored gas for 20 years. It is still up in the air whether the bill will determine who owns the underground pore spaces where the gas will be stored, whether it is the state or the surface owner. See the article on HB498 in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle yesterday.
Let’s take a brief look at carbon sequestration. Is it really the silver bullet touted by “Clean Coal” advocates?What’s the downside of using an untried technology to store over 10 trillion metric tons of CO2 in a hole in the ground? First, on the plus side, it could reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a coal-fired power plant by around 70%. Sounds good? Well actually, sequestration could make the problem even worse. The CO2 has to be transported to the injection site which takes energy. That could be done by pipeline for short distances. To use the pipeline, the CO2 has to be compressed and pumped, that takes energy. Ships and trucks could be used for longer distances, takes energy. Injection takes energy the amount of which increases as the pore spaces fill up. Overall, the estimate is that a coal plant would have to burn a lot more coal to make up for all the energy lost to the sequestration process. Not bad if most of the CO2 is hidden huh? Well, by burning that extra coal, we increase a lot of other really bad pollutants into the atmosphere by about 40%. Stuff like sulfur oxides, mercury, dioxins, radioactive particles, nitrogen oxides and other noxious stuff would actually increase and total emissions would actually go up. Mining that extra coal and transporting that extra coal would also increase the pollution costs, not to mention all the mountain tops that have to be removed to get to the coal. So, while it sounds good, sequestration could really be a disaster for the atmosphere.
Now let’s talk about what happens to that 10 trillion tons of carbon dioxide once it is safely stored in a hole. First, it has to stay there for centuries. The CO2 reacts with the groundwater to form carbonic acid which can dissolve other nasty minerals. The polluted water isn’t likely to stay in the storage site. It can travel hundreds or thousands of miles, polluting sources of drinking water. What happens if even a small fraction of the CO2 doesn’t stay where we put it? In 1986, a landslide in Cameroon caused a large release of natural CO2 into Lake Nyos. Since the gas is heavier than air, the cloud flowed downslope killing 1,800 people and 3,500 head of livestock. Accidental release of a even a small percentage of that much stored gas could also have disastrous effects on the world climate.
Do we need to study sequestration? Of course. Is it the answer? Probably not. Most scientists say that the technology is at least 15-20 years from being scaleable and we don’t have that much time to wait. Simple conservation measures could save more energy tomorrow. Senator Bales (who doesn’t believe that climate change is real) will likely fix his bill so that you own all that carbon dioxide beneath your land after 20 years. For the next 100 years or so, you will be responsible for effects on groundwater and other resources. The Board of Oil and Gas doesn’t have the scientific expertise to deal with the problems created and we are a long way from knowing what those problems will be. Your Governor “Clean Coal” Schweitzer will likely sign both bills if they make it to his desk. SB498 is scheduled for it’s second reading in the Senate tomorrow.