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Published: Monday, 10/17/2005

The battle is on to capture, store carbon dioxide

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Admit it. You didn't rush to judgment about the Earth's rising climate, even after being fed a steady platter of hard science and heart-tugging television images of polar bears on thin ice.

Now, after sweltering through one of the hottest summers on record and doing a double-take when those 80-plus-degree days arrived the first week of October, you've begun to wonder if there isn't something to all those global warming claims.

Whether you've become a global warming convert or not, you may be interested to learn millions of taxpayer dollars are coming to the Midwest to find ways to capture carbon dioxide, the most abundant of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The research is to help coal-fired power plants, refineries, cement kilns, and other industries achieve some reductions voluntarily, instead of having regulations imposed under the proposed Kyoto Protocol President Bush and, before him, the U.S. Senate have rejected. In late November, Canada is sponsoring a forum in Montreal to renew global interest in that Kyoto initiative.

On Oct. 1, the Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus began the second and final phase of a massive research project involving seven Midwest states, including Ohio and Michigan.

Participating industries and universities in this special consortium, called the Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, include BP, FirstEnergy Corp., DTE Energy (Detroit Edison's parent company), Ohio

State, Michigan State, and Western Michigan universities, the Ohio Coal Development Office, and the Ohio Division of Geological Survey.

The new phase of the consortium's work, expected to last four years, received $14.3 million in funding in July from the U.S. Department of Energy. Six other regional carbon projects in the nation received identical funding. The Midwest project also is getting $3.8 million from nonfederal sources, including $750,000 from the Ohio Air Quality Development Authority.

Carbon sequestration isn't a phrase that rolls off the tongues of average Americans. But it's bound to be something people will hear more about as officials cooperatively explore possibilities of keeping as much of it as they can out of the atmosphere.

The hope is that the gas, once captured, can be compressed, then injected beneath the ground. Either that or biologically controlled with trees.

Injection focuses largely on the viability of pumping captured gas into deep saline formations that exist well below valuable groundwater aquifers.

One of the limiting factors: how far the gases would have to be piped, because of geological considerations. "You just can't do it anywhere," explained Battelle's Dave Ball, the Midwest consortium's project manager.

FirstEnergy has offered up its coal-fired Berger power plant on the Ohio River, near Shadyside, Ohio, as a demonstration site for the technology, Ellen Raines, utility spokesman, said. No decision has been made on whether the consortium will use it.

Ohio has a lot at stake with this research, in large part because coal-fired power plants and oil refineries are two of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions.

Coal is America's most plentiful fossil fuel, but also among the dirtiest to burn. Hence Ohio's lingering air pollution problems.

While coal provides half of the nation's energy, it's the source of 90 percent of Ohio's power.

"We have to figure out what to do with the current fleet of [coal-fired] power plants. Nuclear is an option, but coal is such an abundant resource," Ms. Raines said. "We think research and development is the way to address carbon dioxide."

Norway, one of the few countries burying carbon dioxide gas instead of venting it, has been injecting it beneath the oceanic floor of the North Sea.

In England, BP is leading a $25 million research project that involves eight countries. Data from that field work could conceivably be applied someday to BP's oil refineries around the world, including the one just east of Toledo in Oregon.

Experts don't expect underground injection to be the panacea for global warming because of the technology's practical limitations. "It is just one piece of the portfolio of solutions you have to look at," Mr. Ball said.

It can only supplement energy conservation and more efficient plants, as well as hybrid vehicles and the development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, he said.

Even so, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. group, issued a report in September saying carbon sequestration could help make a difference.

Though wide-scale geologic deposition may seem like a pipe dream, some biological methods of carbon absorption, such as targeted tree planting, are happening. Many Ohio and Michigan residents might be surprised to learn their local utilities are pouring money into tree-planting projects in the South. DTE has been involved with them as far away as Belize while also planting 20,000 trees in Michigan, said Mike Rodenberg, a senior specialist in DTE's senior environmental management and resources division.

FirstEnergy and DTE are among 25 utilities that belong to PowerTree Carbon Co. LLC, a cooperative $3 million effort to plant trees in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Why down there? Land is cheap. Plus, a lot of the land where trees are planted there is in floodplains unsuitable for development, said Mr. Rodenberg, PowerTree's president.

In addition to the photosynthesis exchange, in which trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, carbon dioxide is permanently stored in leaves, bark, roots, and soil, he said.

John Austerberry, DTE spokesman, said forestation projects in the South are occurring on protected land in such a way as to provide other benefits, such as recreation, erosion control, and more wildlife habitat.

"Because this is a global issue, it doesn't make a difference whether we do it in Michigan," he said. "A pound of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere doesn't matter where it happens."

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has for years been planting trees on abandoned mines.

Oh, and if you think global warming theories just surfaced a few years ago, consider this: Carbon dioxide has been on the rise in the atmosphere since monitoring began at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii in 1958. And samples of ice cores show there may be a direct correlation between global warming and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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