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Montana State partnership receives $66.9M for carbon sequestration

BOZEMAN -- The U.S. Department of Energy on Monday awarded $66.9 million to the Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership at Montana State University to fund a project that will inject a million tons of carbon dioxide into the sandstone rock layer beneath southwestern Wyoming.

The award marks the third and final phase of federal funding for the Big Sky partnership, which is based at MSU. Approximately $14 million of the federal money will stay on the MSU campus to pay for the university's contribution to the project.

"This grant speaks to the strong science program, both research and instruction, at MSU," said MSU President Geoff Gamble, noting that the award is in line with MSU's Carnegie Foundation ranking as one of the top 96 research universities in the country.

MSU is fortunate to have the strong support of Gov. Brian Schweitzer for energy development, Gamble said during a press conference Tuesday. "He has supported our Energy Research Institute and the development of technologies related to a wide spectrum of alternative energies," Gamble said.

"This project is one of the most important things to the governor," said Eric Stern, senior counselor to Gov. Schweitzer. "We believe that this is the first step toward making Montana a major energy center," Stern said.

The award will allow the partnership to begin its Phase III project, a commercial-scale, eight-year carbon sequestration study that could begin as early as next year. That project will spend two years building infrastructure and drilling an 11,000-foot well into the sandstone rock layer west of Big Piney, Wyo. Then, during year's three through five of the project, the partnership will inject more than a million metric tons of CO2 into the underground formation.

Carbon dioxide is one of several greenhouse gases that scientists have linked to global climate change. Rather than let CO2 escape into the air, geologic sequestration injects liquefied CO2 into permeable and porous rock formations deep underground where a seal known as a cap rock keeps the CO2 permanently trapped.

The partnership's previous studies have shown that the Big Sky partnership's region -- in depleted oil and gas fields and saline aquifers -- could store more than 200 billion metric tons of CO2. By comparison, in 2005, human activity around the world produced 28 billion tons of CO2.

The Big Sky partnership will use the Phase III project to demonstrate that underground geologic formations can store large volumes of CO2 economically, safely and permanently. The project will study the site's geology before injection, monitor the injection process and monitor the site after injection.

Lee Spangler, director of the partnership and head of MSU's Energy Research Institute, said the award opens up important opportunities for the region, state and university.

"It provides the opportunity to validate carbon sequestration as one of the technologies to reduce greenhouse gases and help reduce climate change, and it illustrates the potential to use the region's vast energy resources as a path to energy independence in a climate-friendly fashion," Spangler said.

The funding will allow the partnership and MSU to test sequestration methods that are relevant to the region and develop the infrastructure, expertise and human resources needed to tackle carbon management, Spangler said.

The Department of Energy hopes that this project, and its six sister projects across the country, will provide data and know-how needed for future carbon capture and sequestration operations.

"Along with our regional partner, we will be able to move carbon sequestration technology from the laboratory to large-scale field demonstrations and ultimately to the marketplace," said Jeffrey Kupfer, deputy secretary of energy for the Department of Energy. "By doing so, we will help our nation meet growing energy demand and reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

The $66.9 million from the Department of Energy will pay for a sizeable portion of the $130 million project. The rest of the project's cost will be paid by industry partners, matching funds and other funding sources.

The CO2 will be donated by Cimarex Energy Company, which is building a helium and natural gas processing plant near the injection site.

Almost three dozen faculty, staff and students from MSU will be involved in aspects of the project ranging from education to project management to geochemistry, said Lindsey Waggoner, outreach coordinator for the partnership.

Founded in 2003, the partnership is one of seven regional partnerships supported by the Department of Energy. In addition to MSU, three national laboratories, half a dozen regional universities and numerous federal agencies, private companies and industrial partners comprise the partnership.

Phase I of the partnership's work involved studying the geology beneath the Big Sky region to determine its suitability and capacity for carbon sequestration and identifying human sources of carbon dioxide emissions. Phase II involves a small-scale injection of CO2 -- 1,000 metric tons -- into a pilot well near Wallula, Wash. The drilling for that injection is expected to begin in December.


Contact: Michael Becker
Montana State University

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