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A New Shot at Storing Carbon in Sandstone

No one in the U.S. has proved that capturing carbon and storing it underground makes sense. But Archer Daniels Midland is giving it a go.

Two of the trickiest question in clean energy are whether it’s wise to drill for natural gas (which is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas) and whether it’s economically feasible to capture carbon dioxide from burning coal and other sources of energy and sequester it underground. At this point, it’s clear that the country, minus a couple of towns in Pennsylvania that could ban fracking, is barreling forth on the first project. Meanwhile, no one has succeeded in proving the second one is even remotely practical.

But storing carbon makes perfect sense. We wouldn’t have a problem with climate change if we weren’t pulling carbon-containing fuels — not just natural gas, but coal and oil — out of the ground. Why not put them back where they came from?

The federal government has given Archer Daniels Midland more than $140 million to give it a try. The company is aiming to put a million tons of carbon dioxide per year back into the ground, starting in 2013 and going through 2015, at least. If it seems strange that ADM, a company that’s best known for their food products, has that much carbon to get rid of, remember that ADM’s business is processing corn. If it can process it into corn syrup, why not biofuels, as well? The company has been making corn-based ethanol for decades, but its interest has grown in recent years: ethanol made from cornstalks has a particular appeal for the company. Its CEO, Patricia A. Woertz, who joined the company in 2006, even has a background in energy and fuels; she started worked at Gulf Oil in 1977 and joined ADM from Chevron.

The ADM project will collect carbon dioxide from an ethanol plant and inject it into the Mount Simon Sandstone formation in the Illinois Basin. Storing carbon means turning it from a gas into a liquid, drilling a hole deep into the ground, and sending the carbon down. The sandstone is so deep under the ground that the pressure will keep the carbon stored there in a liquid form. The Department of Energy has estimated that formation could hold a minimum of 27 billion tons of carbon, so the million that ADM’s going to start with won’t make much of dent.

But so far, every commercial-scale carbon capture project of this sort the United States has funded has sputtered and died. That's because no one has proven that carbon sequestration is practical without a system that puts a price on carbon. Norway, which instituted a carbon tax in the 1990s, has been storing carbon in its ocean floors since 1996.

The last big carbon sequestration project in the United States, on the other hand, died an early death after Congress failed to pass climate legislation. ADM, too, started edging its way into this business when a climate change bill still could have passed. Government subsidies are keeping the project going for now. But it’s likely the project would not be financially feasible without those supports. ADM could give it up after 2015 unless the federal government comes up with a way to deal with the cost of carbon, which would make the most sense of all.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Doug Beckers

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