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The Hole Truth


The EPA released a proposal for a new rule on Tuesday that lays some of the groundwork needed to get carbon capture and storage technology up and running.

If formally adopted, the new rule would create a new class of injection wells under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act's Underground Injection Control program. There are currently five different types of wells; this would add a sixth for those created to store carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. The rules would guide the siting, constructing, testing, monitoring, and funding of these underground chambers. They would apply to owners and operators of any wells that will be used to inject carbon dioxide into the ground for the purpose of long-term storage.

"Today's proposal paves the way for technologies that would protect public health and help reduce the effects of climate change," said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson in a statement. "With proper site selection and management, geologic sequestration could play a major role in reducing emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."

In a press call today, EPA assistant administrator for water Benjamin Grumbles explained that the proposed rules serve as an effort to make sure carbon dioxide does not migrate into underground sources of drinking water. While some states have established their own regulations on underground storage, the EPA's regulations "would provide minimum level of safeguards that state programs would need to adopt," said Grumbles.

Another concern with CCS is making sure it sequesters carbon for the long-term -- possibly up to thousands of years -- in the interest of keeping it out of the atmosphere. Grumbles said the regulations would include surface monitoring to make sure the CO2 stays in the ground.

According to Kurt Waltzer, Carbon Storage Development Coordinator of the Coal Transition Project at the Clean Air Task Force, the drinking water protection rules are an important first step for moving CCS forward, though others must still be taken. The question of who will be responsible for the wells in the future is an outstanding concern, as it's not likely that the companies operating the technology now will be around hundreds of years down the line. He also pointed to the need for more individuals all over the country who are knowledgeable about a region's geographic needs in order to be able to issue permits for drilling.

Waltzer also said that there needs to be more funding for testing and assessment to see if this technology can be brought to scale, and said that a good deal of the funding authorized in last year's energy bill for CCS has not yet been appropriated.

"This is not something you can really just address by adopting a new rule," said Waltzer. "We're going to need more in place to move CCS forward -- a broader regulatory framework, as well as other pieces like incentives to move projects forward and a national climate program."

The proposal is explained on the EPA's site along with some of the other nitty-gritty details of CCS. It's available for public comment for 120 days.