Prove your humanity

Landmen knocking on doors in the region might not be looking to lease land for oil and gas development but for wells to store carbon dioxide deep underground. It’s part of a push to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere to address climate change by developing carbon capture and storage (or sequestration) projects.

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Tenaska, a Nebraska-based company, needs to lease land for injection wells and underground space to store carbon for what it calls its Tri-State CCS Hub in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. It has other projects in the works in the Gulf Coast.

The potential customers here would be fossil-fuel heavy industrial facilities like gas power plants and steel manufacturers interested in reducing their carbon dioxide emissions, according to Bret Estep, Tenaska’s vice president of development who leads its CCS initiative.

The Inflation Reduction Act provides tax incentives for each ton of carbon a facility captures and stores, part of the federal plan to address the climate crisis.

Industrial customers will capture their own CO2 emissions. Tenaska will build pipelines to transport the CO2 to underground storage wells in rural areas. “That’s our business model, that transport and storage piece,” Estep explained.

Tenaska and the Southern States Energy Board (SSEB) are negotiating for up to $69 million from the Department of Energy for project development. Other partners include Ohio State University, West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, and West Virginia University.

“In a region with 131 industrial facilities emitting nearly 47 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually…the Tri-State CCS Hub is emerging to help businesses lessen the environmental impact of these emissions,” according to the SSEB website.

Tenaska plans to drill 15 to 20 storage wells where it will inject the CO2, with a target to store five million metric tons annually for 30 years.

Estep said they’ve had an overwhelming response from companies wanting this service. Now, the company needs property rights from landowners so it can build injection wells on the surface and store the carbon thousands of feet underground.

“We’re in what I would call the sort of mid-stage of development. We’re actively negotiating with landowners for pore space rights,” Estep said. “So the real estate rights deep underground to store the CO2.”

A man stands in front of a large screen with a slide reads "Technology in Transition - Fuels" in an auditorium. A few people sit in the audience.

Dale Arnold, Ohio Farm Bureau’s director of energy development, talks to a few dozen residents at an informational session at a Carrollton High School in Carroll County on February 28, 2024. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

Landowner questions and concerns

The Ohio Farm Bureau has held informational meetings in eastern counties where landowners are being approached to lease their land for this project.

“You’re only going to have one opportunity to effectively negotiate,” Dale Arnold, OFB’s director of energy development, told a few dozen Carroll County residents at the local high school in late February. At the meeting, people asked about what to include in carbon storage lease agreements, royalties, and who is liable for the CO2 once it’s injected.

Arnold discouraged them from signing leases “on the hood of a pickup truck”  and encouraged them to consult with an attorney instead.

“This kind of stuff that you want to take a look at, that individual agreement for your home, if you’re being contacted about a lease or an easement,” Arnold said. “How is that going to benefit you, your children, or your grandchildren?”

Others wanted to know how many miles of new CO2 pipelines would be needed and whether their land could be taken by eminent domain.

Many of these questions remain unanswered.

Retired Marine and police officer Ed Hashburger attended one of the Farm Bureau’s meetings near his home in neighboring Jefferson County. A few years ago, he would have been excited by a new industry like this.

“I’m a diehard Republican, okay?” he said, sitting at the table in his dining room.

He and his wife have been raising chickens and enjoying the wildlife at their hilltop home, with a view across the valley. When an energy company knocked on his door a few years ago, Hashbarger couldn’t wait to get involved.

“Because, you know, ‘drill, baby, drill,’” he said. “We have resources here. Let’s take advantage of it.”

But the Hashburgers also wanted to protect the land, air and water. So they teamed up with neighbors to get environmental protections in their gas leases.

Now, as this new CO2 industry moves in, Hashburger has concerns.

“You’re actually going to put this stuff in the ground? What could happen if we have an accident? What can we do to mitigate these situations as they arise?” he asked.

He worries about an accident, like the one in rural Mississippi in 2020, when a carbon dioxide pipeline ruptured, and at least 45 people were hospitalized. Many were unable to breathe; some lay on the ground, unconscious. Meanwhile, cars wouldn’t work, hampering emergency responders.

Hashburger looks out his window to the houses in the valley along the creek.

“What about the small subdivisions of the communities that are around these injection wells? God forbid that one of them burp up and release that gas and settle down there,” Hashburger said.

CO2 storage basics

“That’s the biggest objective, is make sure that it does not leak out,” said Neeraj Gupta, a researcher at Battelle, an independent nonprofit institute in Columbus. He’s been looking into carbon capture and storage for two decades.

He explained that carbon dioxide is compressed and then injected into porous underground rock layers capped by a layer of impervious rock, like shale, to prevent leakage.

“That’s why we go through very detailed characterization, seismic surveys, well testing, reservoir modeling,” Gupta said.

Gupta said this region needs to characterize the geology to ensure there is enough carbon storage capacity. The DOE grant money would be used, in part, for this work.

Gupta explains that drillers have been safely injecting CO2 into underground rock for 50 years in a process called enhanced oil recovery.

But injecting carbon into rocks, and keeping it there permanently, essentially forever, is a newer idea. Gupta points to a project in Illinois that’s been in operation since 2015 and one in Norway as evidence that carbon storage works.

“I think we have shown that it can be done. It can be monitored,” Gupta said. “And that pilot test work, experimental work has been used by EPA to develop the current regulations.”

Regulating carbon dioxide storage

In nearly all states, the EPA issues permits for CO2 injection wells. West Virginia is seeking authority from the EPA to issue its own permits. Regulators in Ohio and Pennsylvania told The Allegheny Front they also intend to seek this authority.

Currently, the EPA has issued only four CO2 injection well permits: two in Illinois and two in Indiana. Four permits in California are pending. But with the tax incentives driving new interest, the agency is considering 127 new wells.

Still, that’s just a fraction of the storage needed to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. For instance, Tenaska’s Tri-State CCS Hub annual storage capacity of five million metric tons of CO2 is a little more than the combined annual emissions of U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson plant and Shell’s ethane cracker.

So far, Tenaska has not submitted permit applications for wells in this region. However, the company plans to submit applications to the EPA in the next month or two for wells in Hancock County, West Virginia.

Skepticism about the permitting process

“So the question is, how good are these plans at making sure the carbon that’s pushed underground is contained?” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, which examined the EPA’s permitting process.

In the permit application, a company is asked how it will ensure the carbon stays underground and how often it will monitor the wells.

“And it turns out there’s no wrong answer to the question. It’s kind of whatever the industry says,” Schaeffer said.

He’s concerned that after the storage capacity is full, companies will essentially walk away.

“One of the disturbing things we saw, when you finish up a project, in some cases three years, four years, five years, you stop monitoring,” Schaeffer said. “You’re pretty much, you know, lock the door and leave.”

If the carbon seeps out into the atmosphere, Schaeffer said, it not only presents possible dangers, but it defeats the purpose of spending all that public money to slow down climate change.