By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The federal government has given final approval to an $85 million, eight-year pilot project to inject a million tons of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, into underground rock formations in Montana for storage.
The Montana State University project seeks to determine whether carbon dioxide emissions from sources such as coal-fired power plants and cement production can be safely and economically captured and stored instead of being released into the atmosphere.
The Big Sky Sequestration Project comes as the U.S. Energy Department is underwriting numerous carbon capture and storage experiments aimed at reducing greenhouse gas output associated with climate change, government officials said in a statement on Tuesday.
In Montana, geologists have targeted Kevin Dome, a subterranean rock formation in the north-central part of the state that stretches for 700 square miles and has trapped naturally occurring carbon dioxide for millions of years, said Lee Spangler, director of the carbon project and associate vice president of research for the university.
Spangler said the formation features porous rock that will admit gas pumped in from the surface, topped by nonporous rocks that should keep the gas contained.
Development of the site, which includes drilling of injection wells, should be underway this week, with storage of the gas slated to begin in two years.
Scientists intend to monitor carbon dioxide levels to ensure the gas was not escaping and to gauge its effects on surrounding rock and water, Spangler said.
While a million tons of carbon dioxide represents just a fraction of the 7 billion tons the United States emits annually, the Montana site has the potential to store as much as a billion tons of the gas, he said.
The Montana-based project is not the largest of its kind but it is vital to assessing whether such regional capture facilities are viable, Spangler said.
"The estimates of storage capacity are very generous," he said of the dome.
With the high cost of converting carbon dioxide to other uses, research in recent years has focused on capturing and storing heat-trapping gas emissions, Spangler said.
The Montana project relies on $67 million in federal funds and another $18 million in matching funds provided mostly by private partners. Those include oil and gas exploration firms like Vecta Oil and Gas, SR2020 Inc. and Schlumberger.
Carbon capture and sequestration projects have not proved viable for public utilities in the absence of economic incentives, Spangler said.
Earlier this month, American Electric Power Co., one of the nation's largest power plant operators, cited the government's failure to put a price on emissions in its decision to shelve plans to capture carbon dioxide output from a coal-burning plant in West Virginia.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Ayesha Rascoe, editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)