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
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. …