The Department of Energy (DOE)’s ambitious but troubled flagship program to capture and bury carbon dioxide emissions, FutureGen, has picked the area where it will inject captured greenhouse gas underground: at Morgan County, Illinois. The choice of burial place, revealed yesterday, is a small step forward for the project; it still needs environmental review and permits before carbon dioxide sequestration can go ahead.
The program was cancelled in 2008 by the Bush administration, which cited a dispute with industry partners over the soaring US$1.8-billion price tag. It received new life in August 2010 as “FutureGen 2.0” with the support of energy secretary Steven Chu and $1 billion in stimulus funding.
Version 2.0, whose price is currently $1.3 billion, is a much-scaled-down version of the original plan. Rather than emerging from a new custom-built plant, the carbon dioxide gas will come from an existing oil-fired power plant at Meredosia, Illinois, retrofitted with oxyfuel boilers. These burn coal in almost-pure oxygen rather than oxygen-poor air, producing a flue gas from which it is easier to extract carbon dioxide. The plant will produce a stream of 97% carbon dioxide gas, which will be transported via pipeline to Morgan County and injected underground.
With some thirty communities vying for the site, Morgan County was chosen because of its relative closeness to the Meredosia plant – and local political enthusiasm for the 1000 construction jobs the FutureGen Alliance thinks the project will create. Like every other site in contention (and the site that would have been the repository for the old FutureGen, Mattoon, Illinois), the region is part of the Mount Simon Sandstone formation that covers much of the midwestern United States. The injection site is deep underground, surrounded by 850 feet thick sandstone, and overlain by layers of hard shale, all of which make it ideal for storage. It is filled with salty water. Smaller experiments in the past have shown carbon dioxide can be pumped underground in the formation.
The long term consequences of storing CO2 underground worry some of those who live above such projects. There have been reports of a leak from a sequestration project in Weyburn, Canada. The FutureGen Alliance has sought to address concerns by pointing out that the characteristics of Mount Simon Sandstone make it safe for storage. Nature has previously covered some of the formidable barriers facing CCS projects (Nature, 463, 871-873; 2010).
For geologists, the key questions include how far the carbon dioxide (a liquid at high pressures underground) will spread over time, and how that affects further injection of the gas, and how much can be safely stored. As the New York Times explains, the FutureGen Project aims to inject 1.3 million tons per year for 30 years. The gas might spread out over any distance, from 2,500 acres to 10,000 acres.There are a few sequestration projects globally, and experts have called for more large scale demonstration projects.
Another key question concerns compensation of landowners for financial losses if something untoward happens. The alliance has a fund and a major industrial insurance policy of $10 million in case of accident. Ulltimate responsibility, if the project follows all permit requirements, will fall to the state of Illinois.