A greenhouse gas is being pumped deep below the Ohio River about 40 miles south of Athens. Carbon dioxide, perhaps the most notorious climate-changing gas produced by burning fossil fuels, is being removed from the smokestacks at American Electric Power's (AEP) Mountaineer coal-burning power plant and pumped into geological formations deep underground.
The process is called "carbon sequestration," and it's the flagship project of the "clean coal" movement supported by industrialists and government leaders alike. Proponents say the technology will allow the electric power industry to meet the demands of future greenhouse gas regulations and reduce America's contribution to global warming while ensuring the U.S. can benefit from its vast coal reserves.
Carbon sequestration's environmentalist opponents, however, are calling the technology an inefficient and potentially dangerous "false hope" that will only perpetuate society's unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels.
Last September AEP began operating a small demonstration carbon sequestration system at Mountaineer, which burns coal in New Haven, W.Va., across the Ohio River from Racine in Meigs County, Ohio. Chilled ammonium is used to capture carbon dioxide produced by burning coal. The resulting product, ammonium bicarbonate, is then compressed and pumped 1.5 miles below the earth into rock formations thought to be conducive for permanently storing the substance, according to AEP.
AEP's current system can sequester more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, and in December 2009 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced it would give AEP $334 million to split the cost of a full-scale upgrade to be completed by 2015. AEP estimates this system will be capable of storing up to 1.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
The DOE funding is part of a $2.4 billion chunk of the Obama administration's stimulus package set aside to fund carbon sequestration projects and development.
Despite its support in Washington, carbon sequestration is a growing wedge issue within the environmental movement and has already met resistance in Ohio.
A $98.2 million carbon sequestration test project at a big ethanol plant in Greenville, Ohio, was canceled last summer after a local citizens' campaign turned public opinion and local politicians against it. Local opponents to carbon sequestration feared the stored gas could trigger seismic activity and would negatively impact property values, according to the Dayton Daily News.
Like the Mountaineer carbon sequestration unit, the government was footing much of the bill for the project in Greenville, but a spokesperson for the company spearheading the project told the Daily News that it was canceled "due to business considerations."
A 2008 Greenpeace International report titled "False Hope: Why Carbon Capture and Storage Won't Save the Climate" claims to debunk carbon sequestration and expose its potential dangers. According to Greenpeace, carbon sequestration is an inefficient, costly and potentially hazardous excuse to continue burning a dirty fossil fuel.
"Carbon capture and storage is a scam. It is the ultimate coal-industry pipe dream," said Emily Rochon, author of the report. "Governments and businesses need to reduce their emissions " not search for excuses to keep burning coal."
Carbon sequestration will suck out 10 to 40 percent of a power plant's total output and could double the price tag of building new power plants, according to the report. The report also states that there is no guarantee carbon dioxide can be stored beneath the earth without leaking or damaging ecosystems, water supplies and geological formations.
AEP and the DOE are currently investigating the environmental impacts of developing and operating the full-scale carbon sequestration unit at Mountaineer. When asked if it's safe to store carbon underground in an area dotted with old coal and mineral mines, AEP spokesperson Phil Moye said that the company is assessing the seismic conditions in the area.
Moye said the demonstration unit operating at Mountaineer has been a success so far.