Too Much Carbon Dioxide? Just Pump It Underground ; A New Surge of Research and Urgency on Global Warming Focuses on How to Capture and Store the Rising Levels of CO2

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For nearly 20 years, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant near Beulah, N.D., has turned tens of millions of tons of coal into synthetic natural gas. It also emits an irksome byproduct: nearly pure carbon dioxide, an atmospheric "greenhouse" gas.

Now, researchers around the world are watching as the plant's CO2 surges through a pipeline to the Weyburn oil field in Saskatchewan, where it's forced deep underground. Scientists and engineers are waiting to see: Will the CO2 stay put? What will it take to keep it locked underground?

The experiment is part of an intensifying project to capture and store carbon dioxide - and so reduce the climatic side effects of humanity's reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas. Monday, the Bush administration convened an international meeting - the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum - to launch such research, part of its climate-change program.

This week, experts with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has so far given the issue scant attention, are set to meet in Oslo to begin work on a capture-and-storage special report, scheduled for completion in 2005.

Business, labor, and environmental groups have also seized on the concept. In a coalition chaired by former Sen. Timothy Wirth (D), now head of the United Nations Foundation, the group urged the building of more coal-fired power plants that funnel CO2 underground - part of a climate-friendly agenda pushed in its report last week.

Capture and storage of CO2 "is definitely getting more attention," says David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center in Washington. Other critical responses, he adds, are a focus on renewable energy resources and greater energy efficiency in homes, factories, and power plants.

Kyoto, aquifers, and the cost of reform

The rising interest in carbon sequestration comes as the world waits for Russia to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Under the agreement - from which the US withdrew in 2001 - industrial countries must reduce their collective greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of 5 percent from 1990 levels, and must do so between 2008 and 2012. If Russia ratifies the pact this fall, the protocol will take effect.

In fact, three commercial projects have long been in the works. Two, including the Weyburn oil-field project, are using CO2 to force more oil out of marginal fields. The third, under way in the North Sea, sequesters carbon in a salty aquifer beneath the ocean floor, in hopes of avoiding Norway's tax on industrial CO2 emissions.

But the technologies for such projects remain too expensive for widespread use, according to Carl Michael Smith, assistant secretary for fossil energy at the US Department of Energy. …


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