The Colorado School of Mines got $32 million Wednesday from the federal Department of Energy to study and develop a carbon sequestration hub in southern Colorado, considered a key to meeting greenhouse gas reduction goals in coming years.
The hub will be located in the Pueblo area, where massive carbon emissions from two power plants and cement kiln, among other major carbon producers, may need to be stuffed underground to meet state and U.S. climate change targets. The large DOE grant gives School of Mines and partners — including Los Alamos National Laboratory — financing to define and drill test sites, and set the boundaries for a carbon sink in the Lyons Sandstone formation thousands of feet beneath Pueblo County.
“It’s a happy occasion,” said Manika Prasad, professor of geophysics and director of the Mines Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Innovation Center. “Drilling a well costs a lot of money. And that’s a major chunk of the work.”
The $200 million-plus round of national grants announced Wednesday are the third stage in a four-stage Carbon Safe development process, DOE officials said, aimed at identifying and preparing geological formations to effectively store carbon from fossil fuel combustion for the long term.
Colorado and some other states have already begun research, and the new round of grants is meant to help them achieve “commercial liftoff” for big carbon capture projects, said Noah Deich, deputy assistant secretary for the DOE’s Office of Carbon Management.
“We need carbon management,” Deich said, “across a number of different industries, If we are going to meet our administration’s climate goals in as fast and efficient a way as possible.”
Colorado School of Mines in Golden has led a state task force studying the future of carbon sequestration in the state. Scientists say they remain uncertain, without more research, whether Colorado has the optimal underground formations that can hold carbon dioxide without leaking, and how far pipelines would need to carry the gas from major emitters to a storage location.
Researchers must also keep in mind environmental justice provisions included in most new federal and state climate-related spending, ensuring that new facilities don’t exacerbate industrial pollution already foisted upon lower-income and minority communities.
Xcel’s Comanche electric power complex, fired by coal, is the largest single source of carbon dioxide in Colorado, according to EPA records, at 8 million tons in 2021. The GCC Rio Grande cement plant was also one of the larger producers in the state, at more than 700,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021. The area also hosts the EVRAZ steel rail plant, at 291,000 annual tons of carbon, and a Black Hills Energy gas-fired power plant at the Pueblo airport that produces 606,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
The Colorado capture project has not yet formally partnered with any of the major carbon producers, but they have been included in the talks surrounding the study.
Without major policy changes, Colorado will fall 1.3 million tons of carbon behind its greenhouse gas reduction target for 2025, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates. Colorado set its baseline of carbon emissions at about 140 million tons a year in 2005, and has set targets to cut 36.4 million tons from that by 2025.
The major pillars of decarbonization are replacing coal-fired power plants with renewable energy such as wind and solar power; transforming the passenger and working vehicle fleet from gas and diesel engines to electric motors using clean energy; reducing leaks in oil and gas production; and, making buildings more energy efficient. Some sectors of the economy, however, are called “stubborn” to electrify, including cement kilns that require intense continuous heat in their furnaces.
Moreover, many states will need natural gas power plants to stay on the grid to serve as backup power or peak power sources.
Colorado’s southern carbon sequestration hub will focus on connecting to those stubborn or backup sources. Geologic and economic studies from the $32 million grant will isolate the most promising sandstone formations, and work with carbon dioxide emitters on pipeline and gathering costs to connect to the storage.
Not all environmental groups are aligned with carbon sequestration as a large part of the climate change solution. Many advocates want to force a faster changeover to clean renewable energy, without giving the fossil fuel industry what they call an “out” of offsetting burning through carbon storage.
Deich responds to that criticism by noting the federal funds available for carbon capture studies and credits is $12 billion, while the amount budgeted for developing more clean, renewable energy is $60 billion.
“What we see is that there are lots of opportunities for carbon management in ways that are actually quite complementary to existing clean energy deployment,” Deich said. “And the reason I say that is because there’s a lot of sources of emissions today, where we either don’t have good replacements — talking cement, for example — or there are reasons why we have power generation that is likely going to persist into the future, regardless of how cheap clean energy becomes.”
Once technical studies identify a specific location near Pueblo, developers must apply for a new “Class VI” drilling and well permit from the EPA, regulating carbon capture and sequestration projects. Applicants have to prove the formation they are targeting would not threaten drinking water, would remain intact to prevent carbon dioxide leaks, and would be monitored and funded for eventual closure and maintenance.
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While School of Mines, Los Alamos Labs and Carbon America, a private carbon capture developer, work on the technical and economic aspects of the southern Colorado hub, other Mines researchers and state officials will work with the community to answer questions and build support. Community meetings will focus on safety and local economic benefits.
“Whether it’s workforce and economic outcomes, environmental protection outcomes, and diversity, equity, inclusion outcomes,” Deich said, “all of that is included in the grant process. And it’s not a one-time thing. It’s an ongoing conversation.”