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The drilling of a single 14,000-foot deep well in southwest Wyoming will go a long way toward proving whether the area and others like it across the U.S. can permanently store vast amounts of greenhouse gases underground.
The Carbon Management Institute at the University of Wyoming and the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy are behind a nearly $17 million project to figure out how to pump and store large amounts of carbon dioxide underground.
With some blaming CO2 as a major contributor to global warming through the burning of fossil fuels -- mainly coal -- finding a way to keep it from getting into the atmosphere would help preserve a major source of energy and jobs.
Preliminary data suggest Wyoming's Rock Springs Uplift, a geologic area where the well is being drilled, could store up to 26 billion tons of CO2. But whether the rock formations in the uplift can safely store the gas is unknown without more research.
The Wyoming drilling project will determine whether researchers should take the next step and inject CO2 underground on a test basis.
"We want to do that in a place where the risk is extremely low, that once it's sequestered, or stored, we won't see it again basically, and that we can do it safely and that we're in a place where we're not going to affect any possible drinking water," CMI Director Ron Surdam said.
Surdam and others associated with the UW project are attending the U.S. Energy Department's annual carbon capture and sequestration conference in Pittsburg this week. The UW contingent is among others from around the world presenting information at the conference about its project and other research into CO2 capture and storage.
Drilling at the Rock Springs Uplift site began late last month and should be done in a few months.
Surdam said the data gleaned from the drilling project will help researchers address a wide variety of issues related to geologic CO2 storage, such as just how well the subsurface rock formations can store CO2.
The project also could prove the Rock Springs Uplift is not suitable to CO2 storage, he said.
"Sure, there's always the chance that it may turn out that it won't be possible, but on the other hand we've given ourselves I think the best chance of success by carefully choosing this area," Surdam said.
The information gained should be applicable to similar potential storage reservoirs across the U.S. and around the world, he said.