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Published: Sunday, 2/24/2008

Michigan test aims to bury carbon emissions

Q: When is 10,000 tons considered small?

A. When it involves research into how well carbon dioxide captured by power plants might someday be permanently injected, or "sequestered," underground to cut back on the atmospheric release of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

That's what's going on 11 miles east of Gaylord, Mich., where a research team started injecting carbon dioxide 3,000 feet underground this month.

Why? Because society is trying to maintain its standard of living while slowing down the rate in which the Earth's climate is warming.

OK, I'll say it loud and clear: Some climate change is natural and, therefore, inevitable. The question is whether we mitigate effects by controlling what we have the power to control.

Coal-fired power plants produce 80 percent of America's electricity. They're also the largest single source of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas.

While it's easy to point fingers at them, they aren't going away anytime soon.

Not with renewables unable, for the most part, to do more than supplement round-the-clock baseload supplies of power from other sources.

Not with natural gas prices on the rise and $3-a-gallon gasoline seeming like a bargain. And not with America having an estimated 300 years of coal left.

Hence, the emphasis on carbon capture and storage or, if you will, carbon capture and sequestration. Both are referred to as CCS.

The carbon-capture technology has been studied elsewhere, especially Texas. It remains theoretical because nobody knows precise risks, the best geology for it, or the costs.

The Gaylord test involves 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide from a DTE Energy natural gas processing plant being piped eight miles to the injection site.

The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership.

A mouthful, I know. Don't worry about the consortium's name. Just realize it has an operating budget of more than $18 million, is run through the Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, and involves bright industry, university, and government minds from eight states, including Michigan and Ohio.

"Although the test is very small in scale, it holds great promise as an important step in building our knowledge and helping future generations to address global warming," David Ball, Battelle project manager, said.

A similar project has been under way at FirstEnergy Corp.'s Berger plant on the Ohio River since 2006, the Midwest's first for CCS research.

A side note: On Wednesday, at Wisconsin's largest coal-fired power plant, plans are to be unveiled for research that aims to capture carbon dioxide with chilled ammonia. Collaborators include the Pleasant Prairie station's owner, We Energies, plus France-based Alstom, and the Electric Power Research Institute of Palo Alto, Calif.

Only three industrial-scale CCS projects are under way worldwide. One is off the Norway shoreline, another in a Western Canada oil field, and another in an Algerian gas field.

All handle a million tons of carbon dioxide.

DTE and FirstEnergy can be criticized for dragging their feet on important pollution controls. But they deserve credit for their roles in sequestration research that could, someday, pay dividends not only for their shareholders but also the Midwest itself.

Even Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., one of the more strident environmentalists, acknowledges that the world's environmental problems can't be solved without industry's participation.



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