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Home > Feature Articles > Municipality Strategies for Sustainable Community Best Practices

EPA Regulates Geologic Sequestration of Carbon Dioxide

Carbon sequestration by injecting carbon dioxide underground can also push pollutants such as saltwater into underground aquifers.

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Carbon Dioxide Sequestration Regulations Adjust to New Technologies

Geologic sequestration (GS) is the process of injecting carbon dioxide (CO2) from a source, such as a coal-fired electric generating power plant, through a well into the deep subsurface. With proper site selection and management, geologic sequestration could play a major role in reducing emissions of CO2.

Underground Injection Control Program

In its first regulations on the burial of carbon dioxide underground, the EPA in July 2008 unveiled measures to protect drinking water from the carbon dioxide. The growing technology, known as carbon sequestration, is critical to reducing carbon dioxide released into the air from coal-fired power plants.

The proposal upgrades the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act to include a new category of injection wells solely for carbon dioxide storage, and creates extensive siting, testing and monitoring requirements to prevent leaks. The EPA already regulates injection wells used to boost oil production and dispose of hazardous and non-hazardous waste.

While carbon dioxide in water itself isn't a problem — think Perrier or Diet Coke — too much of the benign bubbles can turn water slightly acidic, and leach toxic heavy metals and other contaminants out of the surrounding rock and into water supplies. Injecting carbon dioxide underground can also push other pollutants, such as saltwater, into underground aquifers.

"The risks are small, but if sequestration was to be used very widely, a small risk becomes large," said Susan Hovorka, a scientist with the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas in Austin who has done research on long-term storage of carbon dioxide.

What is an injection well?

An Injection well is a device that places fluid deep underground into porous rock formations, such as sandstone or limestone, or into or below the shallow soil layer. These fluids may be water, wastewater, brine (salt water), or water mixed with chemicals. Today's climate change challenge is adding carbon dioxide to that group of sequestered materials.

Capacity for Carbon Sequestration

The United States has the capacity to store 3,900 gigatons of carbon dioxide at 230 different underground storage sites, according to Energy Department estimates. The U.S. emits a total of about seven gigatons of carbon dioxide every year.

To date, the bulk of carbon dioxide being injected underground has been done to enhance oil production. But if coal-fired power plants, as expected, start to embrace carbon sequestration technology, more of the carbon dioxide belched out of smokestacks is expected to be entombed in microscopic spaces in underground rock.

A final rule is expected in late 2010 or 2011, the EPA said.

EPA Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water

EPA Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water works to ensure the protection of underground sources of drinking water (USDWs).

Geologic sequestration of CO2 through well injection meets the definition of “underground injection” in section 1421(d)(1) of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). EPA has authority for underground injection of under the SDWA Underground Injection Control (UIC) program.EPA and states, territories, and tribes that have primacy for UIC programs (“Primacy States”) act as co-regulators to protect USDWs from any potential endangerment from underground injection of CO2.

Underground injection of CO2 for purposes such as enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and enhanced gas recovery (EGR) is a long-standing practice. CO2 injection specifically for geologic sequestration involves different technical issues and potentially much larger volumes of CO2 and larger scale projects than in the past.

READ MORE about Carbon Sequestration at EPA



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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