Pipeline for carbon dioxide needs a closer look

Paradox Gas Well

By Denise Fort, Chapter Energy Chair

Mine CO2 and build a pipeline to carry it? Seriously?

Thanks to a call from a citizen, we were alerted that the Bureau of Land Management is considering approval of a pipeline to carry carbon dioxide from a mine in Arizona to the Permian Basin oil developments in Eastern New Mexico.
The project is described here.

The most striking thing about this pipeline, to me, is that it would transport newly mined carbon dioxide. Indeed, the notion of mining CO2 would seem ludicrous to many people. The pipeline proponents have bought a CO2 mine in Arizona, the St. John’s CO2 Helium Field, where they produce “9 million cubic feet of mostly carbon dioxide gas” a day.

New Mexico’s Permian Basin is at the heart of a practice that extends across the oil-producing regions of the world. Oil producers have long known that they can inject carbon dioxide into oil pores to produce more oil, under the name “enhanced oil recovery,” or EOR. The Permian Basin is the site of most of the EOR in the country.

The problem is, the planet is awash in carbon dioxide, spewing forth from coal-fired power plants, industrial operations, leaks from gas production, and a host of other sources. Indeed, we have raised the atmospheric concentration to 400 parts per million through these releases, yet the sure consequences of this unrestrained pollution have barely fazed the U.S. energy sector. Enhanced oil recovery means more oil to burn, at one level, but it is the source of the CO2 that also should concern us.

Indeed, most EOR is done using carbon dioxide that is mined, that is, dug out of the earth, where it otherwise would be sequestered from the atmosphere. It is then transported to the location of the oil fields, using some 4,000 miles of pipelines in the U.S. After injection, some of it remains sequestered in the oil field, and some is recovered with the oil. Thus, EOR means 1) increased burning of oil and 2) new releases of carbon dioxide and associated gases.

Most people would think that getting more oil out of a find is a good thing. Some environmentalists would agree, if the carbon dioxide were sourced from anthropogenic sources, or recycled, as I prefer to call it. In any event, if EOR is going to occur, rather than creating additional pollution from mining carbon dioxide, better to capture and store (sequestered) CO2 that is now being released into the atmosphere. (I should note an important caveat — I don’t know how much carbon dioxide is released as part of oil recovery, and how much remains underground.)

About 20 percent of the CO2 used for sequestration is recycled from manmade sources. Why would one dig up any more CO2, with the abundant sources of CO2 that surround us? Presumably geography, technology, cost, and perhaps tax subsidies play a role in decision-making over sources. An energy company in another state is developing these sources, and running pipelines using them, so the technology is proven.

Our goal should be to find a way to use “manmade” sources of CO2, or what I will call recycled CO2, rather than digging up and releasing still more CO2 into the atmosphere. Indeed, it is critical that we get this right, because at the right price the companies that produce CO2 will capture it for resale, thereby realizing some profit from what is now a waste product. Of course, we need a price on carbon for almost any good policy to take effect.

The Bureau of Land Management has been asked to approve this pipeline’s construction on federal public lands. The scoping process has just begun; happily the agency has agreed to prepare an environmental impact statement on the project.

The Obama administration has proposed regulations that address the climate impact of proposed federal agency actions. While these regulations appear stalled, the issues raised by mining CO2 are unavoidable and must be thoroughly explored in an environmental impact statement.

How can we turn this environmental disaster into a better project, in which a pollutant is removed from the stream of emissions, and injected underground? I suspect that we will need expertise from industry officials, geologists, engineers, economists and others to defeat this proposal as it stands. Please examine the BLM website and send me your ideas. denisefort@msn.com.