Wallula: Is there a fix for global warming under our feet?

Wallula: Is there a fix for global warming under our feet?

After nearly a decade of preparation, the experiment that started last week near the banks of the Columbia River seems almost anti-climactic.

Four cylindrical tanks, each containing about 40 tons of carbon dioxide, sit tethered by pipes and tubes to a hole in the ground. There’s a faint hum of machinery as a pump forces the liquefied gas down the well and into rocks more than half a mile below the surface.

The setup doesn’t look like much, conceded project leader Peter McGrail, of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). But it represents the first crack at finding out whether the vast basalt deposits of the Columbia Basin might someday serve as a geologic vault to lock up greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other industrial sources.

“This is the only one in the world,” McGrail said earlier this week at the experiment site. “Nobody else has injected (liquefied) CO2 into basalt.”

The pumping started July 17 and will continue for about two weeks. The goal is to inject 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide — about as much as an average coal-fired power plant emits every three hours. Then the well will be capped and monitored for more than year to make sure there’s no leakage.

But it’s not clear when — or if — the approach will ever be applied to help slow the rate of global climate change.

The project was conceived during the mid-2000s, a period McGrail wistfully refers to as the “heady days” of research on methods to capture carbon dioxide and store, or sequester, it underground.

The federal government seemed poised to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. With more than 100 coal-fired power plants on the drawing board in the United States, carbon sequestration appeared to offer a relatively simple way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide flooding into the atmosphere.

Finding the right site

… The experiment eventually found a home in an unlikely spot: On the grounds of the Boise Inc. paper mill at Wallula. The mill doesn’t have any plans to capture and store its own carbon emissions, but is interested in tracking and helping advance the research, said spokesman Destry Henderson.

Washington’s Ecology Department reviewed the plans and found no reason to be concerned about impacts on water quality, said regional director Grant Pfeifer. The injection zone is far below any wells, and the aquifer in the area is laced with so much iron, fluoride and other chemicals that it’s not suitable for drinking or irrigation. The agency is also convinced that there’s no chance of a gas leak big enough to be dangerous to people. …

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