Deal signed on cross-border climate
May 7, 2009 - Matthew Brown - The
The leaders of Montana and Saskatchewan
have agreed to develop North America's first large
scale initiative to capture and store greenhouse gasses
from a conventional coal-burning power plant.
Whether the $230 million effort succeeds
could have profound implications for the power industry,
which relies on coal for about half the electricity
produced in the United States. Coal is also the largest
source of carbon dioxide, considered the main driver
in climate change.
The Montana-Saskatchewan project would
capture carbon dioxide from a Canadian power plant
and pipe it across the border into northern Montana.
The gas would then be pumped into deep geologic formations
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Saskatchewan
Premier Brad Wall signed an agreement Thursday to
pursue the project.
A top carbon researcher said the project
could engender new support for coal, at a time when
the "dirty" fuel is under assault from environmentalists
and some members of Congress.
"Coal has a bright future in power generation
is North America if carbon capture and sequestration
works," said Julio Friedmann, head of carbon management
at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
The Montana-Saskatchewan project, he said, "will help
assess that future quickly."
The project differs from a spate of
other recently announced climate change initiatives,
because it involves retrofitting an existing coal
plant instead of incorporating carbon-capture technology
into a new facility.
There are about 600 coal-fired power
plants operating in the United States.
Montana has some of the largest coal
reserves in the nation. Schweitzer said developing
that resource is only possible if its contribution
to climate change is neutralized.
"For us to significantly develop our
coal resources, technologies have to be developed
to eliminate the greenhouse gasses," he said. "Ultimately
there will be scientists from all over the world that
will come here to study what we are doing."
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said
the project marks a "new era" of cooperation between
the two governments.
The leaders laid out an ambitious schedule
that calls for construction to start as early as this
fall and for the project to go online in 2011. Both
leaders are turning to their federal governments to
help cover costs.
"The timeline is aggressive, and particularly
important to that is the federal involvement on both
sides of the border," Wall said. "We've got a chance
to be on the leading edge."
Saskatchewan is putting up the equivalent
of $42 million and asking its federal government for
$85 million more.
Montana is seeking a $100 million Department
of Energy grant for its contributions, a carbon dioxide
pipeline and underground storage facilities.
Schweitzer policy adviser Mike Volesky
said the state hopes to tap into more than $3 billion
in federal stimulus money dedicated to advanced coal
and carbon capture projects.
Previous estimates put the cost of the
project as high as $250 million. Volesky said the
figure is likely to fluctuate as details are worked
The carbon dioxide would be captured
from a power plant in southern Saskatchewan owned
by SaskPower. It would be piped 50-60 miles south
into Montana, where the gas would be injected deep
underground for storage.
The gas could later be withdrawn for
use in oil production, a long-standing industry practice
in which carbon dioxide is pumped into the ground
to push oil out of aging reserves.
Montana's Poplar Dome geological formation,
east of Medicine Lake, appears to offer the best storage
site, state officials said.
Other carbon capture proposals linked
to proposed coal power plants are in the works in
Montana, Wyoming, Ohio, Illinois and elsewhere.
Most involve a process known as gasification,
in which coal is turned into a gas before it's used
to generate electricity. Gasification - already in
use commercially at a plant in Beulah, North Dakota
- makes it far simpler to capture carbon dioxide because
the greenhouse gas is separated from other gasses
early in the industrial process.
But building new, cleaner plants does
not resolve the dilemma posed by the nation's working
coal-fired power plants. Those produce a cumulative
2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually
The goal of the Montana-Saskatchewan
project is modest by comparison - capturing 1.1 million
tons of the gas over the next four years. That equals
about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide coming out
of the SaskPower plant.
"There will be nay-sayers that say 30
percent isn't enough," Schweitzer said. "But it's
30 percent more than anybody else is doing."