Update Already: The AP is reporting that the FRET has killed SB498 on a party-line vote. With more than 50 amendments on the table and time rapidly running out, it was really more of a mercy killing than outright murder. Of course Republicans blame Democrats and Democrats blame Republicans. Actually I think it is to the credit of both parties that they recognized they had more on their plates than they could finish. Carbon sequestration is a very complicated subject and better to snuff a confusing bill rather than have to live with the consequences of bad legislation for years.
Senate Bill 498 to establish laws governing carbon sequestration in Montana is currently reposing in the House FRET committee. The bill will likely pass on through the legislature and will certainly be signed by the Advocate-In-Chief. This bill does little damage in and of itself. It is a baby step on the long rocky road to “clean coal”. The current energy bills leave much to be decided if we are to go down this road. This might be a good time to review a few of the myriad legal and environmental issues that are not covered by SB498 and other current “clean coal” initiatives. 4 & 20 Blackbirds has been doing a good job of covering problems with some of these coal bills.
Carbon sequestration is the process of scrubbing carbon dioxide from coal either before it is burned or from the smokestack gases and storing the gas thousands of feet underground. There are many real costs to carbon capture. It costs around $50-70 per ton of coal to sequester carbon dioxide. The cost in energy is 30-45% of the power produced so, for every three power plants that sequester carbon, it will be necessary to build a third plant just to replace the lost generating capacity.
SB498 declares that the underground pore spaces where the CO2 resides revert to the owner of the surface land 20 years after injection. However, ownership of the land and pore spaces is not all that needs to be considered. Those spaces are not empty. They are already occupied, usually by groundwater. The state, by law, owns the groundwater. We must also determine who owns the CO2. Is it the landowner, the producer, the state or the contractor who injects the gas? Many different ownerships may apply to a sequestration reservoir and each ownership may be subject to different laws. The property may be held by title, by lease or by license. One entity may own the pore spaces but another hold title to the minerals that surround the spaces. Title may be subject to easements or covenants that may or may not be subject to eminent domain laws. Is CO2 to be regulated as a resource or as a waste product? Both of these are subject to different regulatory requirements. Who is liable if there is a treapass of the CO2 into another owner’s pore spaces? Is it the energy company who generates the gas? The entity injecting the gas? The surface property owner? The state who owns the trespassing water? If you receive carbon credits for sequestering the CO2 and it later migrates out of the reservoir, do you have to repay the credits? Who will decide liability issues? Will it be the Board of Oil and Gas? The courts? The state? Can you escape liability through bankruptcy? Many, many legal issues need to be resolved before carbon capture can become a reality.
On the environmental side, the Canadian Weyburn sequestration field, mentioned in a previous article on the subject, stores around 1.5 million tons of CO2 per year. Last year the U.S. produced about 1.5 billion tons of CO2. We would need over a thousand such sites to store excess carbon. There are currently three sites identified in Montana that could store a few million tons. There are likely not enough geologically suitable sites world wide to store our CO2 output. The sequestered gas has to be very clean. Even small amounts of contaminants like hydrogen sulfide and nitrous oxides can endanger drinking water. CO2 forms carbonic acid when it comes into contact with water. The acid is very corrosive to wells and pipes. It can also cause heavy metals like arsenic to move into solution, increasing pollution dangers. Injecting large quantities of CO2 under pressure can force resident brines to move, possibly into drinking water aquifers. CO2 has to be injected under extreme pressure. CO2 is viscous and bouyant. Large volumes will be injected under pressure. Injection can cause cracks in the caprock over the reservoir or open existing fractures allowing the gas to move out of the reservoir. Improper injection could cause geomechanical or seismic events to be triggered due to increasing the pressure in a dormant formation. SB498 deals with none of these issues.
Coal and energy companies are pushing full bore for carbon sequestration because it requires them to mine and burn more of the dirtiest energy source on the planet. SB498 and other sequestration regulations also fail to deal with all the pollution caused by mining and transporting the extra coal needed to successfully store CO2. SB498 would release the companies from any liability for harm caused by the carbon reservoirs after an initial twenty-year period. The gas has to stay in place for centuries. The citizens of Montana would again pick up any long term cleanup and liability costs for a process that has never been demonstrated to be environmentally or economically feasible.