Experts urge fast track for CO2 research

Grand Forks Herald

by Janell Cole

BISMARCK — The future of North Dakota's and other states' coal industries may lie in pond scum, coal cookies and a whole bunch of money.

They all were part of the discussion Wednesday, when power, coal and government experts told Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., what they think it's going to take to dispose of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants.

Dorgan and Tester took testimony at a Senate Energy Subcommittee field hearing at Bismarck State College. Dorgan is chairman and Tester is a committee member.

Carbon dioxide, emitted from power plants, vehicles and other sources, is classified as a greenhouse gas and blamed for global warming.

"How do we continue to use our coal resources and not cause harm to the environment?" asked Dorgan. With 50 percent of all electricity in the country generated by coal-fired plants, "The question isn't whether we use coal, but how we use coal," he said.

Industry representatives said it's vital that research projects get the funding they need soon so the questions and technology can be finalized about how to best capture CO2 at the plants, transport it and inject or otherwise store it underground.

Dorgan told of recently visiting Arizona, where a coal plant has experimented with capturing its CO2, using it to grow algae and then harvesting the algae for conversion into biodiesel.

Yes, algae, Dorgan said: "Single-cell pond scum."

He also visited a Texas company recently that takes flue gases from its coal-fired plant and converts it to three elements — chlorine, hydrogen and baking soda. The baking soda can be put in a landfill.

Or, he said, cookies. On the visit, he was offered cookies in which the recovered baking soda was used as an ingredient.

But testimony Wednesday didn't just cover money and research.

Bonnie Lovelace, chief of Montana's Water Protection Bureau, and Sandi Tabor, general counsel for the Lignite Energy Council, said there are stickier questions than just how CO2 is going to be captured and stored, mostly underground.

Will it be classified as a pollutant? A commodity? State and federal governments need to decide who regulates its storage and who is liable should CO2 injected into geological formations for storage begin to leak out or cause damage. It could mix with something else underground.

And, who owns the gas once it is stored in "pore space" underground?

"Carbon dioxide becomes problematic when we take it in a polluted form, pressurize it and try to store it in the ground where it may move where we don't want it, mix with water or mobilize (polluting) metals," Lovelace testified.

Tabor said the worst-case scenario would be for CO2 to be classified as hazardous waste and loaded down with stringent rules.

Montana State University researcher Lee Spangler quipped, "If it is classified as a hazardous waste, it would probably be the only hazardous waste you can buy in a food grade."

It's a reference to the use of CO2 as keg chargers and for carbonating soft drinks.

Cole reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.