The DOE hopes to store billions of tons of CO2 in underground caverns
Geologic carbon sequestration gets put to the test

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded $126.6 million in grants to test the feasibility of underground carbon sequestration in geologic formations.

Two test sites -- one in California, the other in Ohio -- will pump one million tons of compressed carbon dioxide into subterranean caverns designed to hold the gas indefinitely.  The DOE claims it has already identified enough underground locations to store more than 1,000 years worth of current emissions.

The current set of tests are designed to identify how effective underground caverns perform long-term storage, and how cost-effective the procedure will be. The Ohio test will be conducted below the Mount Simon Sandstone; the California test will be 7,000 feet below the San Joaquin Basin.

The project will eventually store 600 billion tons of CO2 in these two locations, according to Secretary of Energy Bud Albright.  In 2004, human emissions of CO2 totaled approximately 8 billion tons, according to 2004 data from the from the U.S. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.  Emissions from natural sources -- including volcanic sources -- are some 20 times higher: roughly 150 billion tons per year.

The DOE grants, dubbed "FutureGen," are subject to final approval from Congress. Private investment will bring the total price tag to $180 million.  The DOE originally planned to use the money to partially fund the $1.8 billion "clean coal" FutureGen plant in Mattoon, Illinois.

The 275 megawatt Mattoon facility would burn its share of Illinois' 104 billion ton coal reserves.  The plant was designed to pump emissions underground, rather than into the atmosphere.  However, with the new sequestration program, Albright simultaneously announced the DOE would reduce its pledge to Mattoon. Research from the new FutureGen projects would offset the DOE pullout, at least in theory.

In practice, however, the Mattoon facility will likely be abandoned in favor of smaller, cheaper facilities.

Environmental groups have already questioned the usefulness of FutureGen. Greenpeace issued a report this week calling carbon sequestration projects a "dangerous distraction." Emily Rochon, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace, says "carbon capture and storage is a scam," and that governments need to reduce emissions directly.

49% of U.S. energy production is currently produced by the nation's 600 coal facilities.  Another 100 facilities are scheduled to be constructed before 2030 in anticipation of rising oil prices.

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