What is underground carbon storage? BLM approves plant in Wyoming

In what the Bureau of Land Management calls a “significant step” in the fight against climate change, the first carbon sequestration project on public lands was approved Friday in Wyoming.

The project will take liquid carbon dioxide from the ExxonMobil Shute Creek natural gas plant about 70 miles north of the Utah-Wyoming border and inject it 18,000 feet into the ground.

Carbon dioxide from the plant is currently sold for commercial purposes or released into the atmosphere.

Today, the plant can remove 60 million cubic feet of carbon dioxide every day.

“This project is a great example of how BLM can work with industry leaders to address climate change,” Andrew Archuleta, Wyoming BLM office director, said in a statement. “Projects like this will allow BLM to play a role in reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.”

What is carbon sequestration? Can this happen in Utah?

Carbon sequestration is the process of injecting liquefied carbon dioxide deep underground into porous layers, often sandstone, which acts like a sponge.

It has been around for decades, dating back to the 1940s as a means of extracting oil. However, in recent years, carbon sequestration has been touted as a tool in the fight against climate change, allowing power plants and other large sources of carbon dioxide to safely remove emissions.

The idea is gaining traction in Utah, where the majority of power comes from coal. But the state currently has no large-scale carbon sequestration program, and experts say it will likely be years before it sees one similar to the approved project in Wyoming.

However, Friday’s announcement marks progress.

Rock samples taken from a nearly 3 km deep well drilled in northeast Wyoming to study the potential for underground carbon dioxide storage are on display in a laboratory at the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming on August 10, 2022 in Laramie, Wyo. and billions of dollars in new financing are likely to boost these efforts to combat climate change.

Mead Gruver, Associated Press

“It’s very exciting. I think it’s a breakthrough,” Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, said Monday.

Handy introduced a bill in the 2022 Utah legislative session to strengthen the state’s regulatory power over carbon sequestration projects, giving the state primacy in the permitting process. HB244 has been passed and has been signed into law by Governor Spencer Cox, although it will likely be several years before Utah has primacy over the Environmental Protection Agency.

“If you’re applying through the EPA, then good luck,” Handy said. “But if you’re applying through the state that’s embracing this technology and being more nimble, that’s very exciting. It’s still the government, but they’re more nimble in terms of the regulatory framework.

But even if the regulator is, as Handy says, more nimble, Utah’s carbon sequestration future is missing one thing: carbon.

“That’s been the challenge, where are you going to source your carbon dioxide?” said Mike Vanden Berg, energy and minerals program manager for the Utah Geological Survey.

Despite four active coal-fired power plants, dozens of carbon-emitting facilities, and numerous “sinks” — places to inject carbon deep underground — companies have no incentive to install the infrastructure needed for sequestration.

“You have to capture that carbon dioxide and then inject it underground. It’s extremely expensive,” Vanden Berg said. “There’s not enough incentive right now for anybody who owns these plants to do this retrofit and spend this money, especially when you’re talking about a coal-fired power plant that’s been around for 30, 40 years and has a lifespan limited life.”

Additionally, sequestration often has to take place on site, since a company is unlikely to pay to install a pipeline to transport the liquid carbon dioxide to another location.

For springs along the Wasatch Front, it would be difficult to obtain a permit to sequester carbon so close to a major population area due to the potential for triggering an earthquake.

Companies are eligible for a carbon sequestration tax credit which until this month, experts said, was not enough to persuade companies to take action. But under the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, the government subsidy for capturing polluting sources was increased from $50 to $85 per metric ton.

Experts like Vanden Berg say the future of carbon sequestration in Utah likely won’t be companies retrofitting existing factories, but rather new projects that factor infrastructure into the cost of production.

“If you go into building a new facility and you include in the design and the cost the carbon capture and sequestration, the economics of the facility and the tax credit money, that has makes sense,” he said.

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Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Dry Fork Station coal-fired power plant stands outside Gillette, Wyoming, June 14, 2022. Geologists from the University of Wyoming are studying whether rock layers up to 10,000 feet deep can trap the carbon dioxide emitted by the plant.

Mead Gruver, Associated Press

Bonny J. Streater