Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Carbon Dioxide, and what to do with it

Last week, I attended the carbon sequestration conference in Gallatin Gateway, just a short distance from Bozeman and from Montana State University, home of the Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership.

The topic of the conference was on trapping carbon dioxide in subterranean deposits of rock or saline formations (geologic sequestration) and in soils and trees (terrestrial sequestration).

The need for carbon sequestration is from energy production. When fossil fuels are burned, they are oxidized to carbon dioxide and water (as well as nitrogen oxides (NoX), sulfur dioxide (SoX), volatile organic compounds, and heavy metals), producing significant amounts of energy--and carbon dioxide.

We produce energy, beneficial to us, and carbon dioxide, not good for us. The US Department of Energy, through regional sequestration partnerships, is researching the disposal (trapping, sequestration, storage) of CO2.

Our Big Sky Carbon Seq Partnership (BSCSP) says that "carbon sequestration is the capture and storage of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases can be captured at the point of emission or they can be removed from the air by plants."

The process is most often referred to as CCS--carbon capture and storage. The term "storage" is a misnomer; storage implies that we'll want to access something later. We mean, by sequestration, to dispose of the carbon by trapping it. The goal is to get rid of the carbon, not to store it and retrieve it later.

The biggest questions for me were about liability for leaks of CO2, changes in chemistry of receiving waters or rock (when you add CO2 to water, carbonic acid is created. It's a weak acid, admittedly, but the chemistry changes.) I'm also concerned about the ownership of the CO2. It's released by energy production, can be trapped or collected, then pressurized and transported via pipeline to a receiving site, and pumped underneath the earth and 'sequestered'. But who owns the CO2?

The study of sequestration is most important because we'll be using fossil fuels for some time, even though we're getting better at diversifying our energy profile to include renewable energy sources that don't combust fuels and release CO2, like wind, solar, and wave energy. Sequestration will be valuable because the goal worldwide is to reduce carbon emissions, so we'll need to trap/sequester/bury/store the carbon.

Montana is being eyed as a recipient of CO2 by Canadian provinces, coal producers and coal plants in the state, and by other states. Before we accept carbon and experiment with trapping it, I'd like to know that we'll not be changing our ground and water chemistry by injecting CO2 into valuable Montana land and waters. I want to know about ownership and liability and long-term 'storage' responsibilities. What about injecting CO2 into subterranean deposits that shift in earthquakes? What happens to our most precious and limited resource, water? What about geologic deposits that underlie multiple jurisdictions (for instance, the Williston Basin underlies Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, North and South Dakota. Who can inject into that formation, and what's the liability for the other entities?)

I spoke with a representative of the Environmental Protection Agency at the conference. I asked what the EPA's policy was for protecting waters that aren't US Drinking Waters. "There isn't one," she said. "Well," I said, "Montanans in arid regions use water that's highly salinated and mineralized for stock water for cows, for domestic use, sometimes for ag operations. We need those waters protected, too."

Presenters admitted that the technology and processes are in their early stages. Some of the comments included, "If we don't understand the subsurface pretty well, we'll be in trouble." "We may need to drill wells to release pressure. We may need to produce water." This goes to a comment of mine that nature hates a vacuum, and nature hates high pressure and will try to equalize that pressure. When gas or liquid is pumped into a formation, pressure changes and other elements will be forced through or out of the formation. Another: "The costs of carbon sequestration have been woefully underestimated." With regard to pumping CO2 into deep saline aquifers, my concern is this: water has a limit for dissolved solids and gases. The more metals or saline or other gases in water, the smaller the potential for that water to accept and dissolve another element. One presenter said, "No one's drilled down to find out what the salinity is [of deep saline formations]." Another proposal is to pump CO2 into porous rock--into its pore space. Although we can identify types of rock, it's difficult to say how much or how consistent its pore space is. One presenter said, "No one has gone prospecting for pore space, so no one really knows."

My closing thoughts are these:
+ We can do better with energy production. We're moving in that direction. Just as we know we need to diversify economic portfolios, we need to diversify our energy sources to include renewables. Let's use all the solutions available to us.

+ If we don't produce vast amounts of CO2, we don't have to figure out how to collect, transport, trap, and forever monitor it.

+ Developing nations want cheap and easy fuels, too. That means coal and oil. With a limited tolerance in the atmosphere for a certain amount of CO2, NoX and SoX, then we cannot all emit those gases.

+ We are creative. We can find ways to more responsibly use all our forms of energy.

I'll keep working for a better energy future for Montana, for resource protection of our waters and land, and for cheap, reliable power. I'm an energy user, too.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

New Addition to the Family

Yesterday, I bought a lovely crowntail betta fish. This is his first picture in his adoptive family.

He's named Dee Snider. Five points to the person who gets the reference right off!

(Okay, here's the story: he's named Dee Snider because his fins look like some crazy hair. Dee Snider was the lead singer of the 80s hair band Twisted Sister, and had bigger hair than even I do. The new betta fish, when his fins are splayed, bears a striking resemblance to Dee Snider. Ref the "We're not gonna take it" music video.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Water Policy Interim Committee

The Water Policy Interim Committee, on which I serve, met for its second meeting in Helena yesterday. There was an update on our 2009 statewide water year, water demonstrations by the Montana Water Center (based in Bozeman!), discussions on legal definitions and statutes, and progress on groundwater investigation from a law that passed last session.

2009 was Montana's best water year (precipitation, snowpack, groundwater) since 1997. The entire Intermountain West is in the best shape for hydrology and agriculture that it's been in years. In Montana, precipitation in the spring was slim, but cooler temperatures helped keep crop growth slow until rain and warmer temperatures came in summer. August and September have been dry, but that's okay; wheat is ripening and drier conditions are better for field work. Spring wheat harvest has been up: 28 bushels per acre on average, higher than 26.4/acre (the five-year average). Durum is up, too: 26 b/acre, higher than 24.2 (5 yr avg).

But we're headed into another El Nino cycle, with drier and hotter conditions, and so our water future may not be nearly as good as this year.

The definition of navigability of rivers and streams has been a hot topic of late, since administrative determinations and court cases have focused on state ownership of the beds of navigable rivers. Our fine legislative counsel described three definitions of navigability (two federal, one state) and the specific applications of those definitions.

One of the most important efforts in the state now is the Groundwater Investigation Program. Much of our water use is from aquifers: subsurface deposits of water. Knowing the quantity, quality, and demand on our aquifers is key to managing our water resources so that we have what we need. Currently, there are forty sites being monitored, with some of the state's high-growth areas garnering attention. Sites with many individual wells, stream depletion (pre-stream capture of water), and problems with contamination (sometimes from septic tanks. Eeeuuw.)

There is also a focus on groundwater permits and more and more exempt wells (mostly domestic wells for homes) drilled in closed basins. A closed basin is a drainage in which all of the water that's available is claimed (appropriated), and there is no more available. There is much more area than funding currently available for the program, but the emphasis to start is the high-growth, contaminated areas. Let's focus our attention there and fix those problems first, establish a baseline of groundwater quantity, quality, and demand, and then expand the program to other areas.

The Montana Water Center presented examples and demonstrations of artesian pressure (wells) versus atmospheric pressure (surface water or the water table), streambank protections, groundwater contamination, and surface water runoff and pollution.

These are the issues that the WPIC and water wonks like me are working on. I love this work. Water is the most important resource our state has. I'll keep working to protect it for use by Montanans.

And I've been shopping some back-to-school sales lately. Check out the shoes:

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Water, an Update

I've been working hard all summer on legislative stuff, constituent requests, and civic issues, and one of my focii has been water--water quality, water quantity, and our stewardship of our waters in all the ways we use it.

I serve on the board of directors of the Greater Gallatin Watershed Council and in June released a report on E. Coli contamination in Bozeman Creek. There are public health cautions about drinking or playing in the water. I often say it's a heck of a lot easier to keep something bad out of our water than to remove it once it's in there, and a public health threat indicator like E. Coli garners our attention and action.

I'm proud to serve in this legislative interim on the Water Policy Interim Committee, and I've been studying water policy related to coal bed methane (CBM) drilling. I've written on this before (see my entry of March 30) but now, our neighbors to the North (Alberta and British Columbia, Canada) and to the South (one state removed, Colorado) have found that water is a precious resource that merits protection and is not simply a byproduct of a mining practice.

Alberta requires reinjection of groundwater aquifers after water is pumped out to release the pressure holding the methane in place, so that the methane can then be extracted. In April, the Colorado Supreme Court found that CBM producers must adhere to the same water rules and regulations as other state water users, and that the extraction of tributary groundwater for coal bed methane production is a "beneficial use" of water that is subject to water rights administration and approvals by the water courts.

These are two precedents--more than that, actually, they're laws and statutes--that recognize the importance of water quality and quantity and require other processes to respect the importance of water.

Alberta also has requirements for drilling companies to determine baseline data and to establish monitoring wells before drilling ever begins, prohibits the injection of fracturing (or “fracking”) liquids (like diesel fuel) into the ground to break apart coal or to loosen the ground, and requires CBM extractors to reinject produced water back into the ground.

Think of this in the context of other mining operations. Take, for instance, strip mining coal. For a coal seam seventy feet deep in the ground, a company removes the topsoil, rock, clay, loam, and other material that lies on top of the coal, and that material is called the "overburden". The topsoil and clay and loam and other stuff is piled up, put aside, and the company mines the coal seam. They then RECLAIM the site by REPLACING the overburden in the strata in which it originally lay, grade the site, and return it as closely as possible to its original state.

Water is the overburden that is removed in CBM production. At the end of the CBM mining, the overburden should be returned.

Water users dependent upon, or with water rights to, groundwater must not have that groundwater pumped off and released to surface waters, never to be available from that underground aquifer again. It's not fair.

Canada and Colorado have established that CBM mining must recharge the aquifers and treat water as a resource, not a waste product of mining.

The Colorado Supreme Court determined that the extraction of tributary groundwater for coal bed methane production is a "beneficial use" of water that is subject to water rights administration and approvals by the water courts. The findings of the case, Vance v. Wolfe, state, among other things, that the water that holds the coalbed methane under pressure in coal seams, holding it in place, is a beneficial use of the water, and that coalbed methane can be extracted BECAUSE of hydrostatic pressure. If the water were not holding the methane in place, the methane couldn’t be extracted. The water itself makes CBM production possible, and that lends value to the water, as well as by virtue of the importance of water itself.

The court decision reads, in part: "the presence of water and its subsequent extraction during CBM production is far more than an "inevitable result." Indeed, the presence and extraction of water are integral components to the entire CBM process. CBM producers rely on the presence of the water to hold the gas in place until the water can be removed and the gas captured. Without the presence and subsequent extraction of the water, CBM cannot be produced. As both Three Bells and Zigan make clear, the fact that the water used during the CBM process may become "a nuisance" after it has been extracted from the ground and stored in above ground tanks (that is, after it has been "beneficially used") does not prevent a finding that the water is put to a beneficial use. While the Engineers and BP are correct that no Colorado case has specifically held that water used during CBM production is a beneficial use, this fact does not prevent us from finding such a beneficial use where our case law and the language of the 1969 Act so dictate.

That the water used in CBM production is integral to the process itself distinguishes this case from a host of other instances in which nuisance water is merely removed but not beneficially used. The Engineers and BP argue that the use of water in CBM production is akin to snow removal, removal of flood water from a subsurface mine, and storm water control at construction sites -- all of which constitute mere removal of nuisance water rather than beneficial uses. We find the analogy attempted by the Engineers and BP to be a faulty one. In their examples, the water is exclusively a nuisance and not integral to the task at hand. In contrast, CBM production cannot occur without the presence and controlled removal of the water."

Our Montana Constitution says, "The waters of the state are the property of the state for use by its citizens." It's our responsibility to protect these waters, to make beneficial use of them, and not to waste water. We're a headwaters state; there's no water upstream from us, so when we go dry, that's it (until the next snowfall and melt season). Good and protective precedent is set by our neighbors to the north and (one state removed) south.

I'll work to make sure Montana's waters are well and responsibly used--and restored.