Science at the Bend of Climate Change
by Kate Riley
Seattle Times, May 27, 2008
WALLULA, Walla Walla County - The mighty Columbia River begins to bend here at this "place of many waters." A little upstream, the river is joined by the Yakima, Snake and Walla Walla rivers, as if picking up steam before pressing through the Wallula Gap toward Portland.
For years, industry has been an abiding companion to the stunning landscape, laid by ancient lava floes and carved by ancient floods, age-old rivers and modern dams. Barges dock at the grain elevator; a poplar farm grows pulp for the mill, which makes paper and cardboard; a feedlot fattens cattle and the slaughterhouse sends them to market. Freight trains whistle through.
A few years ago, new industry peaked over the horizon. Tentatively, wind turbines appeared on the ridge south of town, turning slowly above dryland wheat and cattle pastures. Now they have jumped the river onto rolling hills, from a distance looking like pearls spilling onto a quilt. The Stateline Wind Energy Center, the nation's largest single wind farm, can generate enough juice for 70,000 homes.
With customers such as Seattle City Light, the wind farm is helping Washington state meet its aggressive goals of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2007, the Legislature said no new coal plants could be built in this state unless they can sequester some of their emissions underground - an emerging technology.
Now the Wallula area could play a major role in meeting that challenge, although some citizens of Walla Walla County are fighting the idea - hard. The Port of Walla Walla is under fire for leasing land for research into whether carbon emissions - a culprit of climate change - can be captured safely underground.
Battelle, which operates the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in nearby Richland, is participating in the Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership among research institutions, federal and state agencies and industry.
Lab Fellow Pete McGrail and colleagues are studying whether carbon dioxide can be pumped as deep as 4,000 feet into basalt layers created by those ancient lava floes. In the lab, it is an elegant solution. Injected into porous basalt, the carbon dioxide reacts under pressure and over time to create stable, safe carbonate minerals akin to limestone.
Battelle is poised to move the experiment out of the lab. Recent results from seismic testing ruled out faults where gases could escape, the last technical threshold for the large-scale test.
If successful, the results could help with the larger challenges of curbing carbon emissions both here - the Columbia Basin Basalt Group covers about 65,000 square miles - and far beyond the Northwest. McGrail collaborates with Balesh Kumar, a scientist in India, who says the Saurashtra Basin basalt formations in Western Indian have potential to help his developing country reduce emissions - if the science and economics work.
At Wallula, science's potential has attracted an industrial companion that has provoked some Walla Walla citizens. On the bet the carbon-sequestration test will work, a private concern, Wallula Energy Resource Center, applied for a permit with the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council to build a newfangled coal plant nearby. The integrated gasification combined-cycle plant uses a cleaner technology than a traditional coal plant, and the sequestration would help the new plant meet the state's new, stricter standards for emissions. But the permit was withdrawn, pending further tests.
Though McGrail and Battelle are not partners with the private developer, some citizens want to stop the scientific inquiry as well. If the science works, the plant - or another one like it - is inevitable, says Doug Morton, spokesman for the Coal Plant Working Group. Despite the state's flintier standards, Morton says many in his group do not trust the state council to protect the community.
Recently, the group delivered to the port commission petitions with 550 signatures opposing the effort. Though the local group opposes the plant for environmental reasons, many environmentalists agree sequestration could well be a part of the long-term solution for reducing carbon emissions. The Northwest Energy Coalition is watching McGrail's work with interest - not opposition.
Wind turbines, yes. Investment in other renewable forms of energy, yes. Conservation, yes. But the science at this bend in the Columbia River should be permitted to continue.
The Port of Walla Walla should stand firm to see whether an elegant laboratory result could work on a large scale.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs