Wait, they’re drilling for CO2 in Colorado?

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile nearly everyone is scrambling to cap greenhouse gases, Houston-based Occidental Petroleum wants to expand a Colorado drill site used to extract millions of tons of naturally formed carbon dioxide — the biggest villain in a phalanx of heat-trapping pollutants that’s fundamentally changing Earth’s climate.

As counterintuitive as it may seem in the global warming era, the CO2 is then pipelined to oilfields in the dusty West Texas Permian Basin. There, it’s pumped back underground and used like a fizzy tab to dissolve the last few sticky drops of crude deep down in declining oilfields, and to increase pressure in the wells tapping those fields.

At the same time, the federal government is spending millions to try and figure out how to trap and store vast quantities of carbon dioxide underground for the long-term as a way to combat global warming  — all part of a non-natural carbon vicious circle that, understandably, may make your head spin.

The drilling site is near Gardner, about halfway between Alamosa and Pueblo, just one of a few spots around the country with commercial CO2 wells. Up in the northwest corner of Colorado, CO2 is imported from Wyoming. In a different form (from coal gasification), CO2 is also exported from North Dakota to Canada.

co2 pipeline map

At the Gardner site, the CO2 is 98 percent pure and is trapped in sedimentary rock basins about 6,000 to 8,000 feet deep, similar to natural gas deposits. It exists as a pressurized goo, technically called a supercritical liquid.

The Gardner drill site and pipeline have been operating since the early 1980s. Records show it has carried as much as 300 million cubic feet of carbon dioxide per day, adding up to millions of tons over years of operation. There’s no accurate accounting for how much of it has leaked out along the way. And it’s just one segment of several thousand miles of CO2 pipelines in the U.S. that are not federally regulated or monitored closely.

That’s a lot of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Adding insult to injury, it’s ultimately used to develop yet more fossil fuels — resulting in even greater carbon dioxide emissions — in one of the perfect illustrations for the dizzying cycle of fossil fuel dependency.

The drill site is on private land but access roads, and the horizontal wells would affect resources on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management; thus the recent call for public comment. The permitting process is in the scoping phase, when feedback helps shape the agency’s environmental analysis in a process aimed at evaluating and disclosing the impacts of federal actions.  The comment period is open through March 11.

Along with assessing the site-specific effects of the proposed drilling, environmental watchdogs say the BLM should also evaluate the cumulative effects of the project. That includes the impacts of any CO2 that might leak from the pipeline along its route, as well as the long-term effects of using the gas to produce more fossil fuel that will result in additional carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.

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