In a troubling development for proponents of geologic carbon sequestration a Saskatchewan farmer has just made public an independent study that links high levels of CO2 found in their farm’s soil to the thousands of tons of CO2 that is currently being pumped into deep oil bearing deposits under their land by Canadian Energy giant Cenovus.

by Chris de Morsella, Green Economy Post. Follow Chris on Twitter @greeneconpost

In a breaking news story a Saskatchewan farm couple has whose pasture land sits right above a very large carbon capture and storage demonstration project have released independent research that confirms unnaturally high levels of CO2 in the property’s soil. Furthermore report found that the high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the soil matches the carbon dioxide Canadian Energy giant Cenovus has been injecting. Cenovus Energy, a large Canadian oil company is pumping eight-thousand tonnes of CO2 gas down into a mature oil field in an attempt to enhance tertiary oil recovery from this declining field.

The farmer Cameron Kerr says ponds on his land have developed algae blooms, clots of foam and scum, while small animals have been found dead a few yards away. The farm couple is claiming that greenhouse gases supposedly stored permanently underground are now leaking out, killing animals and sending groundwater foaming to the surface like shaken-up soda pop.

This is a pretty high profile project that has been touted by proponents of carbon sequestration as an example of how this practice can be used in order to enable the world to continue to burn ever greater quantities of coal while avoiding the increasingly negative consequences of releasing yet additional amounts of global warming gases into the atmosphere.

If this report should be confirmed this is a serious problem for the multi billion dollar carbon capture sector and it opens up questioning of just how “permanent” a solution pumping compressed CO2 gas underground is. At the very least it should lead to questioning of what types of geologic formations are in fact suitable for this process.

The Kerrs were advised by Ecojustice Canada, formerly called the Sierra Legal Defence Fund and Canada’s largest and foremost non-profit environmental law organization to have an independent study performed on its Weyburn property, located on top of a Cenovus Energy carbon capture and storage site.

In the fall of 2007 Cenovus, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Energy and Resources and the Kerrs agreed that the ministry would conduct a year-long investigation into soil, water and air quality on the Kerrs’ property. However three years later no such investigation has taken place.

On a single day in July 2008, the ministry took water and air samples. They did not test for CO2, which is rather odd considering how testing for a potential leakage of injected CO2 was the objective. Since then, both Cenovus and the ministry have refused to conduct further studies on the property.

Should Cenovus and the ministry refuse to conduct a full investigation in the face of credible evidence linking the disturbances on the Kerr property to the carbon capture site, the Kerrs will seek legal action.

If this report should be confirmed and this type of problem with underground carbon sequestration be found elsewhere then this is a major issue that geologic repository carbon sequestration proponents will have to address and do so in a transparent manner. This is something that needs to be done quickly because the carbon sequestration market is growing very rapidly and is poised to grow even more rapidly in the coming years. Perhaps the pause button should be hit on this sector until these serious questions are answered — one way or the other. Also would like to note that this type of carbon sequestration — which is storing CO2 gas in geologic deposits as in this case — is just one form of carbon sequestration which also includes other practices such as promoting the growth of forest in order to capture carbon in the biomass.

As this story breaks we will update this post.

Update: The consultant who performed the test is Paul Lafleur of Petro-Find Geochem. He found carbon dioxide concentrations in the soil last summer that averaged about 23,000 parts per million — several times those typically found in field soils. Concentrations peaked at 110,607 parts per million in some areas. Lafleur also used the mix of carbon isotopes he found in the gas to trace its source, linking the CO2 found in the soil samples to the CO2 gas that Cenovus is injecting into the ground.

Cenovus pumps 6,000 tons of C02 into the ground every day and since 2000 has injected over 16 million tons of CO2 gas to a depth of 1.4 kilometers (0.9 miles) below the surface at the Weyburn project site, the largest facility of this kind in the world.

It is worth noting that the process of capturing and compressing CO2 from a coal fired power plant is both energy intensive and an expensive process — a lot of expensive equipment needed. It is estimated that doing so increases the fuel needs of a coal-fired power plant from between 25%-40%. Then when one factors in the need — in almost every instance to then pipe this highly compressed CO2 gas some (possibly significant) distance to an appropriate geologic repository and add this additional energy / capital and maintenance costs and finally add to this growing mountain of costs all the costs incurred at the injection site — the boring of the injection wells, the pumping stations etc. needed in order to force this gas into the deep geologic repository and (it is believed) sequester it — well the entire additional cost train adds up to an unacceptably large figure.

In fact some very big “clean coal” projects are being abandoned after having sucked up very large amounts of money — for example Queensland (Australia) Government has just dropped its financial support for a CCS Zero gen project after spending 150 million dollars. — then this whole idea begins to look more and more like an example of greenwash. It begins to seem more like an elaborate and well executed public relations exercise by the coal lobby in order to sell the public on a paper solution — but one that in practice will never be economically or energetically feasible.

Which leads to the billion dollar question: Is clean coal an oxymoron?

There are a few questions I would like to see answered by the Provincial government of Saskatchewan and by the operating entity Canadian energy giant Cenovus. They are:

Why is the CO2 gas escaping from containment after just a few years when it was thought that this injected gas would be sequestered in the oil bearing formation about 1,400 meters below ground? This would represent a very serious deficiency and opens up questions as to the actual as opposed to the hypothesized ability of these types of formations to successfully contain CO2 gas for geologic periods of time measured in the many thousands of years.

The second pressing question is why did the Provincial government drag its feet on testing the Kerr’s soil, which they had agreed to do. And furthermore why — when they finally did come to their land on one single day — why did they see fit to only sample the ambient air and to not actually take measurements of the gas content in the soil. This raises an impression of either gross institutional incompetence on the responsible government agencies part or of some kind of complicity within it — which would be a serious thing if that were to be the case.

The government of Saskatchewan needs to address these unanswered questions or risk the rise of all manner of nagging doubts about its competence and/or honesty & integrity.

This story is still unfolding and I am updating my original post as more details become available. Updated on 1-17-11

The questions being raised by the allegations made by the Kerr family have wider implications for CCS in general because the Weyburn site is considered a global test case for carbon capture and sequestration. This is a technology that has become central to Canada’s climate-change strategy attracting huge amounts of public funding.

The Weyburn project is also an international project — the CO2 gas originates in the US. A 330-kilometer-long pipe connects the oil fields of Weyburn Saskatchewan, to a coal gasification plant in Beulah, North Dakota. Tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) are transported through it daily to be injected beneath Canadian soil. This example of carbon capture and storage is seen by many government and industry leaders as a vital way of reducing CO2 emissions. It is North America’s and possibly also the world’s highest profile carbon capture and sequestration project and is widely quoted by proponents of this technology as a working example of a successful project. Since 2000, Cenovus, the Canadian energy company operating this site, has injected about 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide underground.

So far, the Weyburn carbon capture and sequestration project has cost the Alberta government a cool $2 billion and it is expected to remove some five million tonnes of emissions per year. This is a lot of CO2; however in the larger picture it is just a small fraction of what would need to be sequestered in order for carbon sequestration to have any significant impact on mitigating climate change. Alberta alone has the stated goal of sequestering 140 million tons of CO2 per year — how many multiples of $2 billion does this add up to. The costs alone are staggering.

Just on economic terms how successful is it really?

In the end — by shining a spotlight on CCS — it is leading some to question ths climate change mitigation strategy on cost terms alone. Both the staggering capital costs and the added recurring additional energy costs required by the capture and sequestration process itself. By my back of the envelope calculations just this single province in Canada alone would need to raise well over $50 billion dollars of public monies in order to reach its stated CCS goal. That is a huge amount of money.

Is it worth it? Wouldn’t all those many tens of billions of dollars be better spent on achieving much higher energy efficiency and promoting wind and/or solar power. This is a fair question to ask proponents of CCS; regardless of how this incident ultimately turns out.

This incident also underlines the importance that auditing of these types of projects be clearly and unambiguously independent in character. Having these projects be audited and inspected by agencies with a vested interest in discovering positive results at the very least raises the specter of doubt about th integrity of the process — whether or not this is actually the case. As the Chinese philosopher Confucius once said: “When in a peach orchard do not adjust your hat; when in a melon patch do not tie your shoes” In other words a wise person avoids even the appearance of impropriety.

In new developments the officials who have studied the Weyburn area for a decade as part of an $85-million research project on the injection site dispute Mr. Lafleur’s — the independent consultant hired by the Kerr family who measured the high levels of CO2 and concluded that it was traceable to the CO2 being injected at that site. While the “fingerprint” of the Kerr gas does match the injected gas, it also matches the fingerprint of naturally occurring gases sampled in regional baseline studies in 2001, before the Weyburn project began full operation.

They claim that the Kerr property gas’s “isotopic composition is similar to background values in soil gas and it is not conclusive that it’s [man-made],” he said. “For them to claim that it is indicative of the injected gas is not appropriate.”

A fair question to ask these officials is why on the apparently single time that they inspected the Kerr’s land — as per agreement — that they did not see fit to measure the actual soil CO2 content — and isotopic composition — choosing instead to take atmospheric measurements only. This particular allegation, made by the Kerr family, if born out raises some red flags. At the very least it is rather odd and warrants further explanation.

© 2011, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Chris de Morsella (146 Articles)

After a decade performing as a lead guitarist for rock bands, Chris de Morsella decided to return to the career his uncle mentored him in as a youth....Software Engineering. Since that time he has thrown himself into his work. He has designed a compound document publishing architecture for regulatory submissions capable of handling very large multi-document FDA regulatory drug approval submissions, for Liquent, a division of Thompson Publishing. At the Associated Press, Chris worked with senior editors at facilities around the world, to develop a solution for replacing existing editorial systems with an integrated international content management solution. He lead the design effort at Microsoft for a help system for mobile devices designed to provide contextual help for users. Chris also helped to develop the web assisted installer for LifeCam2.0, the software for Microsoft’s web cam and developed late breaking features for the product He also served with the Rhapsody client team to redesign and build a major new release of Real Networks Rhapsody client product. His most recent assignment has been Working with the Outlook Mobile Time Management team for the next release of Outlook Mobile for the SmartPhone. Chris' interests are in green building and architecture, smart grid, the cloud, geo-thermal energy, solar energy, smart growth, organic farming and permaculture. Follow Chris on Twitter.

  • Jerry Toman

    Actually, I would say this is good news, Chris, though not necessarily for the landowners. The sooner the public becomes aware of the fraud that is CCS, the better.

    From a chemical standpoint, there is no reason an “oil bearing formation” would have a particularly high capacity for carbon dioxide, since its solubility in oil isn’t particularly high. Also, being stored at high pressure at just 1.4 km below the surface, it’s not surprising that a small, linear molecule with a high permeability through most substances, would eventually appear on the surface.

    The only way that CCS would be of any value whatsoever in terms of minimizing GHG release would be if the storage is PERMANENT, i.e., chemically bound in an irreversible reactive state, which is very difficult to achieve, even in the ocean, which isn’t accepting CO2 as rapidly as once believed.

    Storing the stuff temporarily, is just kicking the can down the road so it can be dealt with by future generations (out of sight–out of the “news cycle”), not unlike the addition of surfactant to the oil spill by BP to “hide” its effects will cause problems in the GOM for generations if not for the millennia to come.

    Given the overall cost, it should be clear to all that the best way to sequester the carbon in both coal and in oil sands is to simply leave it in the ground in the first place.

    If the same amount of funds devoted to this project were to be devoted to renewable energy research in all it’s forms, as well as energy efficiency, conservation, and “sustainable living modes”, we would be able to turn the corner on the “energy” as well as “climate” crises before the end of the decade.

    As far as money spent on wars is concerned–well, don’t get me started…

    • Chris de Morsella

      Jerry — I agree, in the sense that it is putting the whole carbon capture and sequestration idea itself in the light of closer scrutiny. I think that on capital cost terms alone — and when one does the calculations they are staggering — that the notion of sequestering carbon dioxide in geologic repositories is a very poor use of limited resources. I have been updating the original post as I learn more details on this story and what particularly strikes me is just how much public money this single project has required. AND how much more would be needed in order for this to have a measurable impact on climate change.

      It is massively expensive. And now it appears that it does not even work as advertised — though this is disputed by the officials who studied the project site before it was developed [see post update].

      I think the comments you made regarding the fact that the injected CO2 gas is NOT being chemically bound and that therefore it is only being contained by the physical barrier of the overlaying strata. Like you I also have my doubts that — to use your words — “a small, linear molecule [e.g. the CO2 gas] with a high permeability through most substances” can effectively be sequestered for the many tens of thousands of years it would need to be sequestered for in order to not as you say just be kicking the can down the road.

  • John Whitney AIA

    Interesting follow-up in the 13 January “The Globe and Mail”:

    The article reviews the situation on the Kerr’s farm in Saskatchewan and summarizes the conclusions of the Kerr’s consultant, geological engineer Paul Lafleur, that the carbon dioxide in soil gas on their property “is clearly the anthropogenic CO2 injected into the Weyburn reservoir.”

    It also reviews comments from Steve Whittaker, a senior project manager at the Petroleum Technology Research Centre in Regina, which led the original study for the International Energy Agency. Whittaker believes that the CO2 is not from the injected gas and also seems to believe that other troubling aspects of the situation can be explained away as “natural”.

    However, even Whittaker notes that a more in-depth study, which the Kerrs continue to call for, should be conducted to properly resolve the matter.

    “I’m not discrediting what they’re saying,” he said. “I know this couple truly believes something is going on. And if something is there, we certainly want to find it.”

    Also: The article links to a Canadian Press video report that notes that the Saskatchewan regional government had agreed to conduct a year-long study of the situation. However, since the 2007 election when control of region changed this investigation has been shelved.

  • Chris de Morsella

    My opinion is that the Saskatchewan regional government should empower an independent investigating body to look into this and report their conclusions. I would hope that the political folks running things there can see both the wisdom and the necessity for this kind of independent investigation that is not tied to any vested interests and is thus more likely to reach unbiased conclusions.

    So far this has not happened.

  • Al Costa

    “Clean Coal” reminds me of the times when “Open Source” software was becoming increasingly known. At that time there was a operating system called VMS that was renamed “Open VMS” in order to make it sound modern and cool, even though almost NOTHING or maybe even NONE of its code was actually open source.

    There is no such thing as “Clean Coal”. It is just coal burning whose smoke is being stored underground. If that´s considered “clean” we may then then consider nuclear energy clean as well, as, similarly, its dump (depleted uranium) is also stored underground.

  • Ger Groeneveld

    Nice comparison Al, an then nuclear waste is solid, put into glass and closely monitored. After long research it was concluded that a salt mine was a stable structure which in many case proved to wrong: When are those “researcher” going to learn that a conclusion for a system in equilibrium will not hold if it is dynamical pushed away from its equilibrium by altering parameters (storing materials of a kind that was not there before)?

  • Chris de Morsella

    Ger — Reminds me of a slow motion ecological disaster that is being played out in the Northeast corner of the state of Nevada — near the town of Wendover (which I had occasion to pass through and hear about this). Right outside of this wee little gambling strip (feeding off of gamblers driving out from Salt Lake City) is a vast area of salt flats that are where the US did much of its underground nuclear testing.

    Well they exploded these nuclear bombs deep under the salt rock and their engineers calculated the forces and determined that at the depths that they exploded these bombs that the resulting nuclear caverns — containing long lasting deadly fallout — would remain sealed by the overlaying salt rock. What these engineers failed to account for in their calculations was that the extreme pressure wave of the blast would create billions and billions of micro-fractures in the overlaying salt rock and that over time water would infiltrate into these cracks and in the winter freeze and expand the cracks.
    The end result is that now the area is covered with these atomic sink holes and radioactive dust is slowly being picked up and spread by the wind, primarily in the direction of Utah.

    The moral of the story is that we may *think* we have factored in all the variables and that we understand the problem space and all of the parameters, but that when dealing with something as dangerous and long lasting as high level nuclear waste or something as complex as the planetary climate system we are still way out of our league.

    So now people come to this dusty little strip of a town in the desert to gamble in the smattering of casinos that pile up against the Utah border and while they gamble their money away they are breathing in radioactive dust that is being picked up by the desert wind, something that the engineers assured would never happen, but that in fact has happened.