Team hopes to drill its way to global warming solution
Surrounded by cornfields and cows, this gas-and-go exit off Interstate 5 south of Sacramento seems an unlikely place to solve global warming.
But for months, researchers have been quietly negotiating with a local farming family to bury carbon dioxide -- the world’s leading greenhouse gas -- below their tomato fields northeast of town.
The experiment will test whether carbon dioxide produced by power plants could be pumped deep underground to keep it from venting into the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change.
“I think it’s a grand idea; you don’t know if something will work until you try it,” said Edward Lopes, 67, one of six siblings who will sit down this week to decide whether to allow the experiment beneath their fields. “I’m all for it, but if the others aren’t interested, that’s fine.”
Scientists with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory say they zeroed in on this tiny delta town halfway between Stockton and Sacramento because it sits atop one of the largest natural underground gas storage sites in North America.
Seventy million years ago, an ancient inland sea created a dome of hard rock, forming an underground cap over porous, briny sandstone that could absorb several billion tons of gas, according to project scientists.
“There are geologic formations in the Central Valley that have enormous potential. We could potentially sequester several hundred years’ worth of California’s carbon dioxide there,” said Larry Myer, head of the research team.
The team is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the California Energy Commission, five other Western states, and a private natural gas company that hopes to flush lucrative methane from the earth as the carbon dioxide is buried.
If all goes as planned, hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 eventually could be siphoned from power plants and shipped via pipeline for burial under the Central Valley in a process known as carbon capture and sequestration, Myer said.
The strategy has been identified by a U.N. panel on climate change as a major option for slowing global warming. The U.S. leads the world in carbon dioxide emissions, putting 7 billion tons annually into the atmosphere. Nearly 40% comes from power plants that provide the nation’s electricity.
Using carbon capture and sequestration, energy experts say, Americans could continue to power their lifestyle with plentiful coal while keeping greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere
California could emerge as a leader in the push to put carbon dioxide underground because of its recently enacted greenhouse gas legislation, which sets mandatory caps on carbon dioxide by 2012.
But some residents of Thornton, population 1,450, are wary.
“You may think we’re a bunch of hicks, but we have a lot of concerns,” longtime resident Christine Lagoda said. Those worries include the possibility of potentially deadly leaks and noise and pollution from trucks hauling pressurized gas 24 hours a day.
The issues in Thornton demonstrate the struggles that lie ahead as strategies for halting global warming move from laboratories into the real world.
There are nagging questions about how CO2 moves underground, confusing case law about who owns the subterranean sediments where gas would be stored, and uncertainty about long-term monitoring. The high cost of capturing the gas would be borne by consumers.
Mostly though, Thornton residents wonder, why here? They were angry when word got out last month that university researchers were looking at their town as a place to experiment with greenhouse gas. No public hearings had been announced, no county permit applications filed. Not even the fire chief was informed.
“I think something should be done about global warming ... but you have to weigh the cure, whether it’s worse,” said Marlene Corbitt, a software consultant and Chamber of Commerce vice president, when she got the news. “I wouldn’t want to be sitting on top of the gas.”
Researchers have called that reaction NUMBY, or “Not Under My Backyard.”
But the Berkeley team insists that the experiment is safe. Members say that unlike fault-prone coastal or volcanic mountain areas, the area’s sediments are stable. They say they planned all along to involve residents, but wanted to keep the site secret until a deal was finalized.
After word leaked out, the team quickly scheduled a meeting at New Hope Elementary School. About 25 people showed up and watched warily as the scientists played a slide show explaining the experiment.
Two wells would be drilled about 150 feet apart, the scientists said, and 4,000 pounds of carbon dioxide pumped three-quarters of a mile below the surface. Researchers would monitor the CO2 for a few months to see how it moved, then would cap the wells and walk away.
Residents peppered the team with questions. “So you can’t guarantee that it’s going to be leakproof?” “How does it affect the water table?” “Is this kind of like a landfill underground?”
The researchers and a Rosetta Resources manager tried to allay residents’ fears, explaining that CO2 is not explosive and that drinking water should not be affected. Monitoring would be done during injection, they said. After the experiment, there would be well-heads left behind in Thornton, but not much else.
By evening’s end, most of the audience, including Corbitt, seemed mollified. Some asked if there was anything the project could do financially for Thornton. The per capita income here is $10,558, well below the U.S. average of $24,020, while the cost of living is 42% higher.
The researchers politely replied that they had nothing to offer except a few purchases at the local convenience store. Eric Hadsell from Rosetta Resources, the natural gas company involved in the test, suggested that one day things might be different.
“We’ve got to put this stuff somewhere; it’s a whole new ballgame,” he said. “There’s property taxes that could be assessed too. This is the tip of the iceberg.... If you get there first, you’ve got the best chance.”
As they warmed to the idea, some residents wondered whether the experiment might put Thornton on the map. “Could we end up on ‘Nova’ with this groundbreaking technology, talking about how Thornton helped save the world?” one asked.
Others were fatalistic.
“I don’t think it would matter whether we said yes or no. They’re going to make their agreement with the landowner and do it,” Robert Jones said.
Carbon dioxide has been pumped underground for decades by energy companies in Canada, Texas and elsewhere to force out stubborn oil deposits. But in most cases, companies haven’t worried about whether the gas stayed put.
Rosetta Resources, which put up $1 million of the project’s $5-million tab, hopes CO2 buried in Thornton also could be used to flush out currently inaccessible natural gas, which maps show lies in the Thornton Reserve.
Though carbon sequestration technology is widely regarded as safe, there are questions about how the gas may move underground, whether it could escape by rising through abandoned oil wells, and whether over millenniums it could break down concrete seals or natural rock caps. There are no federal or state laws in place for long-term monitoring of the potentially deadly gas after it is buried.
Robert Socolow, a Princeton physicist who heads the university’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative -- which is funded by BP and Ford -- said it was important not to downplay risks, however remote.
“The terrible way nuclear waste was presented to the public -- we have a parallel there. Nuclear waste was introduced with lots of assurances that weren’t true,” he said.
One incident that Socolow sometimes mentions occurred at Lake Nyos in West Africa’s Cameroon in 1986. A huge upwelling of naturally occurring carbon dioxide from the lake bottom drifted for miles, flattening trees and suffocating 1,700 people as they slept.
Thousands of miners around the world have died of “choke damp,” as the colorless, odorless gas is called when it builds up in shafts. Several members of a ski patrol on Mammoth Mountain died last April after falling into a large, natural CO2 seep from the mountain’s volcanic core that had been trapped under heavy snow.
The geology at those sites is different from that of the Central Valley, said Sally Benson, a hydrogeologist on the research team. But she agrees that proper monitoring is crucial, and said an artificial odor might be added to the gas to ensure that leaks would be immediately noticeable.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has no rules for carbon sequestration. With projects such as California’s moving forward, the agency this month proposed issuing temporary permits for such efforts under a special experimental well category.
They would need to be located deep below drinking water, and noncorrosive materials would be required for the well lines. But no long-term monitoring is mandated.
California’s oil and gas supervisor, Hal Bopp, said that although the EPA should regulate sequestration, state regulators also have a role to play. Carbon dioxide can seep back up an abandoned well if a plug fails, for instance. There are almost 62,000 abandoned wells in the Central Valley.
“The purpose of this is to get CO2 out of the atmosphere, not to spring a leak and put it back in,” Bopp said.
But only a few hundred of California’s nearly 167,000 wells are inspected annually.
Benson said that much was already known about how the gas would behave underground, and that she and other researchers thought 100 years of monitoring would be enough. After that, she said, the carbon in most cases would have dissolved into the saltwater or even formed solid minerals, rendering it harmless.
Some Thorntonites say they would like to be part of an experiment to address global warming.
“We’ve got to figure out something to do with the CO2, is my thought. I’ve got four kids and four grandkids,” said Allen Barone, a tomato farmer who leases the Lopes family field under which gas would be buried.
“I think you couldn’t find a better place to do it,” he said. “We won’t know if this works unless we try.”