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Coal-to-oil raises long-term environmental questions despite plans to capture CO2

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As we’ve just heard, existing coal-to-liquids plants emit a lot of greenhouse gases. But the proposed Medicine Bow plant is being touted as exceptionally green. Still, environmentalists have concerns about the plant’s effect on air quality and water reserves. And even if this plant is comparatively eco-friendly, future facilities may not have any incentive to follow suit.

WILLOW BELDEN: Converting coal to oil has a bad environmental track record. The few existing plants – for instance in China and South Africa – emit about twice as much carbon dioxide as traditional oil refineries. But the Medicine Bow plant promises to be different. Instead of releasing CO2 into the air, they’re planning to capture and sell 95 percent of it.

Even though carbon dioxide is one of the most abundant greenhouse gases, it’s actually in high demand at the moment, because oil companies can inject it into the ground to extract oil. Ron Surdam heads up the Carbon Management Institute at the University of Wyoming.

RON SURDAM: Wyoming, for example, probably has somewhere between four and eight billion barrels of oil that’s stranded. And about the only way that we know to get it out is to use CO2 flooding.

BELDEN: So oil companies are actually willing to pay for carbon dioxide. Which makes it financially attractive for a coal-to-oil facility to sell its carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

Financially attractive – and environmentally attractive. The CO2 gets reused multiple times over during the enhanced oil recovery process. And once the oil company is done extracting oil, they can leave the CO2 underground, in the depleted oil field, so it doesn’t pollute the air.

SURDAM: So it’s an outstanding way to in fact utilize the CO2 and take care of the problem of CO2 emissions that we’re all worried about.

BELDEN: Well, at least theoretically. But some environmental groups aren’t so sure. George Peridas is a carbon capture and storage expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says if you’re careful about where you put the carbon once you’re done getting the oil out, it’s fine. But if you’re not careful, the carbon could leak out into the air.

GEORGE PERIDAS: Although technically we know how to pick good geology and how to operate fields safety, the current regulations don’t necessarily ensure that this will happen.

BELDEN: In other words, if you sequester CO2, and it leaks into the air, there’s not much to hold you accountable. And leakages have happened in the past – including one in Wyoming.

PERIDAS: Was this something catastrophic? No, absolutely not. It wasn’t enough to cause danger to public health or anything like that…

BELDEN: But he says if CO2 is leaking back into the air, then it’s not being sequestered. And if that’s the case, you’re not accomplishing the goal of drastically reducing emissions.

But let’s set carbon dioxide aside for a moment. The plant will have other emissions too, which aren’t being captured. Richard Garrett of the Wyoming Outdoors Council says his group worries that those emissions could create an ozone problem similar to what’s happening in Sublette County. There, oil and gas development have created ozone levels so high that they violate federal standards, and Garrett wants to make sure that the problem isn’t recreated around this plant. He’s also worried about dust.

RICHARD GARRETT: We’ve seen air quality degraded in the Powder River Basin almost to the point of reaching nonattainment because of coal mine operations. And this is in part a coal mine operation.

BELDEN: The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality says those concerns are unfounded. Air Quality Administrator Steve Dietrich says the DEQ will monitor pollution levels to make sure the area continues to meet national standards.

STEVE DIETRICH: Does that mean no dust would be made? No. Does that mean no emissions will be allowed to come out of the facility? No. But keep in mind, those levels meet national ambient air quality standards.

BELDEN: Of course, those standards are just a baseline – something the company has to meet, in order to get a permit to operate.

Then there’s the question of water. The plant would use about 1,000 gallons a minute. The State Engineer says there’s plenty of non-potable water in the nearby Mesaverde Aquifer. But retired UW Geology Professor Jay Lillegraven, who has done extensive geologic mapping of the area, is worried that drawing down the water in the aquifer could affect surface water. He says the rocks above the aquifer are fractured.

JAY LILLEGRAVEN: And water can move through fractures. Broken rock does not hold water.

BELDEN: So he says if you draw down the level of water in the aquifer, then water from the soil may seep down to fill the void. And that could have a profound effect on vegetation and wildlife.

Some environmental groups worry that wildlife would be profoundly affected regardless, since the plan would be in prime sage grouse territory.

Still, despite all these concerns, most groups agree that with proper planning and monitoring, this plant wouldn’t be a huge environmental threat. But if coal-to-oil technology gains popularity, and more plants open in the coming years, big questions remain.

The first is economic. Right now, it makes financial sense for a company like DKRW to capture its CO2, because there’s a market for it. But what happens when nobody needs carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery anymore? Again, Ron Surdam from the Carbon Management Institute.

SURDAM: Say at the end of 20 years, you’ve gotten all the stranded oil out of the ground. So now the question is: What do you do with the CO2?

BELDEN: You could still sequester it underground. But you couldn’t sell it. So you’d be losing money. In other words, if coal-to-oil plants open once the market for CO2 has dried up, they’d have no incentive to capture their carbon. So unless the government starts limiting emissions, future plants could be big polluters. And even if they aren’t – even if they’re just as clean as traditional refineries, groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council say that’s not good enough. They argue that if we want to make a major dent in greenhouse gas emissions, we need to promote renewable energy, instead of creating more oil.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.