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.
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.