Preventing a Climate Catastrophe
by John Rudolph

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Is Underground Storage the Answer?

Scientists carefully monitor the Weyburn site. They are eager to prove that CO2 can be safely and permanently stored beneath the earth's surface. Research shows that about 80 percent of the carbon dioxide injected into oil reservoirs stays underground. Some of it clings to subterranean rocks, and some dissolves into the oil. Eventually, when the oil field is shut down, the wells will be sealed, providing storage for all the CO2 used at Weyburn.

Encana purchases its CO2 from an industrial plant in neighboring North Dakota. The U.S. government funded the plant after the 1970s energy crisis to convert coal into natural gas.

One of the main byproducts of coal gasification is carbon dioxide. Now, instead of venting the CO2 into the atmosphere, a lot of that waste gas is captured and shipped to Weyburn through a special pipeline.

It seems odd that a method to avert the extreme effects of climate change would be found in an oil field, but many scientists believe carbon sequestration, which is also called carbon capture and storage, could be an important tool in this effort.

Physicist Klaus Lackner works in a beige, spartan office at Columbia University in New York City. Lackner has been trying to find environmentally acceptable ways to use carbon-based fuels, especially coal. He believes the potential for carbon sequestration is huge.

"Clearly it is possible today, with today's technology, to take carbon dioxide and put it underground and make a reasonable claim that it will stay there for a very, very long time."

It's estimated that about 15 percent of U.S. carbon emissions could be captured and stored over the next few decades. That would be significant since the United States produces one-quarter of the world's greenhouse gasses.

Lackner likes to equate the world's output of CO2 to a great body of water. And he points out, it's going to take a lot more than one oil field to store all of it.

"In terms of liquid," says Lackner, "The total CO2 we will put out in this century is on the order of one Lake Michigan. So that sets the scale and these are just starting points."

Lackner believes changes need to occur immediately in the way carbon dioxide is disposed of, and the way energy is used. Those changes may come from research being conducted at a facility in southern Saskatchewan.

Next - Economic Incentives for Reducing Emissions

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