POINT OF ROCKS, Wyoming—On a mid-June afternoon in the dusty plains of southwest Wyoming a team of oil drillers got the final thumbs-up to begin boring deep into the earth. As of yesterday they were more than 90 percent of the way to reaching their goal of drilling a test well 2.5 miles below the surface.
But this is not any old well.
The crew from Baker Hughes, the Houston, Texas-based oil services company, is not even searching for oil but something far more elusive: a leak-proof place to permanently store carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants to curtail global warming pollution.
The effort is part of the Wyoming Carbon Underground Storage Project, or WY-CUSP. Fourteen years in the making, the project is being closely watched to see if it can overcome the financial and technical challenges that have plagued other carbon capture and and sequestration (CCS) plans in the United States.
Up until last month, American Electric Power's Mountaineer CCS plant in New Haven, W.Va. had grabbed the lion's share of industry attention. It was the nation's most advanced attempt at capturing CO2 from the 31-year-old coal plant's exhaust gases and burying it in the deep-rock sandstone there. But on July 13, citing an uncertain U.S. climate policy and the continued economic downturn, AEP shelved the project.
Ron Surdam, director of the University of Wyoming's Carbon Management Institute (CMI), which manages WY-CUSP, believes his team's project is worthy of a different fate than AEP's pilot. "We think we've got a world class place to store CO2," he told SolveClimate News.
But while the focus of attention may be shifting to WY-CUSP, it, too, faces enormous hurdles, and commercialization of CCS — touted by many as a critical national energy policy — remains a distant and uncertain prospect. Even if WY-CUSP succeeds in identifying a massive underground storage location for CO2, that is only half the battle — and perhaps the easier one to win for this technology.
Huge Storage Potential
First conceived by Surdam and colleagues in 1997, WY-CUSP's $16.9 million first phase landed $5 million from DOE in September 2009. Helping matters was the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, which passed the U.S. House in June of that year and included $2.4 billion in incentives to entice coal-fired plants to test out CCS.
With industry matches from the state of Wyoming and Baker Hughes — as well as employee time and equiment from EMTEK, a developer of pipeline technologies, and Geokinetics, which provides seismic services to the petroleum industry — CMI signed a contract with DOE in December 2009.
"We're the first of 10 U.S. site characterization projects funded by the DOE in 2009 to begin drilling," Shanna Dahl, CMI's deputy director, said via release.
Among the project's developers optimism is high. Some key reasons are the high porosity and permeability of the reservoir, which makes it easier for CO2 to slip into the spaces in rocks, as well as its massive size.
Surdam told SolveClimate News that Wyoming's Rocks Springs Uplift geological formation — the 2,000-square-mile area where the project is located — may be capable of storing up to 26 billion tons of CO2.
"[That] is very large but not unthinkable," said Jon Gluyas, the Dong/Ikon Chair in Geoenergy Carbon Capture & Storage at Durham University's Center for Research into Earth Energy Systems in the UK.
To put that number in perspective, the BP Statistical Review of World Energy of 2010 says the United States annually produces more than 6 billion tons of CO2 from burning coal and other fossil fuels, meaning that this site could hold roughly four years' worth of U.S. CO2 emissions, or all of Wyoming's carbon output for the next 458 years.