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Wyoming works to clarify laws around pumping carbon underground

A graphic showing the process of carbon capture and sequestration -- capture, transport, utilize and store.
Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality
An example of how carbon dioxide could be captured for sequestration purposes.

Wyoming lawmakers are hoping to clarify permitting and rulemaking around an up and coming energy industry.

There’s a lot of talk about capturing carbon, a climate warming gas, and pumping it underground into the empty spaces between sand and sediment – what’s called the ‘pore space’. This is called carbon capture and sequestration.

Wyoming lawmakers have spent over a decade trying to outline and lead the way with rulemaking for this industry. One thing that was decided is that the owner of the pore space is the surface land owner. But, the finer details are still pretty confusing, so state lawmakers are sorting through that with HB 32, called, ‘Geologic sequestration-unitization amendments.’

Connor Nicklas is an attorney who represents some of these landowners. He spoke at a recent legislature committee meeting about questions they have when leasing this underground space to a company interested in pumping carbon into that space.

“‘Do I have an opportunity to get out of this? What are my liabilities? When would I know if this actually is going to happen?’” said Nicklas. “When you look at the statute now, some of these questions aren't answered. And I think that this bill helps clarify those things.”

It’s a bill that came out of the interim and was worked on by the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee. The general goal is to provide clarity to existing rules and additional regulatory oversight. Notably, Wyoming and North Dakota are the only two states in the country to have been granted ‘primacy’ by the federal government. This means, in regard to the carbon capture and sequestration industry, Wyoming has the primary enforcement of related federal policies, oversight and ability to set minimum standards.

“So the projects are happening. They're happening one way or another,” said Petroleum Association of Wyoming’s President Pete Obermueller regarding the permit applications coming into the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality for carbon sequestration.

A version of this has actually been happening for several decades – with carbon being captured at a facility in southwest Wyoming and transferred to oilfields in northeast Wyoming and Montana. That carbon is then pumped into the ground there and used to squeeze out more oil – this is called enhanced oil recovery. That carbon is then permanently stored underground. So, with concerns about climate change and even federal incentives, the industry is gaining a lot of traction and the technology is ramping up.

“But it's incumbent upon us to make sure that we have statutes in place that help it to work effectively, and help to protect Wyoming's landowners in that process in the best way we can and that's with this bill,” said Obermueller. “Landowners who own the pore space have rights. And we want to make sure those rights are protected and people are fairly paid for the use of their owned land.”

This bill clarifies some of that. Like, what the timeline is for projects, what organizations are attached to what permits and notification of a project. For example, if a landowner lives within half a mile of a project they’ll be notified. This is how it works for oil and gas projects, too. Additionally, attorney Conner Nicklas said it guarantees landowners are fairly and equitably compensated.

The bill has unanimous consent so far.

““It really does clarify and improve the process and provides that certainty to both landowners and the industrY,” said Shannon Anderson, organizing director for the advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council.

The bill is making its way through the House of Representatives and is expected to pass on a third reading consent list. It will then go on to the Senate for debate and voting.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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