EPA’s latest CCS smoke-and-mirrors gambit came last month when the agency issued the final CO2 underground “storage” permits to the planned FutureGen plant in Illinois. For a project whose sole purpose is to demonstrate that coal-fired power plants can capture their CO2 emissions and store them underground, remarkably these permits do not actually require the CO2 to be stored underground. Injected, yes. Stored? Not so much. In fact, they contain no requirement that the CO2 remain where it is put, or indeed remain underground at all. Ironically, since the permits were issued under the Safe Drinking Water Act (yes, that’s right) with the express objective “to prevent the movement of fluids into or between USDWs [underground sources of drinking water] or into any unauthorized zones” you could argue that having the CO2 escape into the atmosphere might just be the most effective way to do that.
The permits (there are 4 wells) mandate that the CO2 be injected into a zone between 3,785 and 4,432 feet below the surface. After that, FutureGen is required to do no more than keep an eye on what happens: “The permittee shall monitor ground water quality and geochemical changes above the confining zone(s) that may be a result of carbon dioxide movement through the confining zone(s) or additional identified zones.” And if the CO2 were to migrate to upwards, and potentially to the surface? That would be up to EPA, but it is not clear what it could require, since the Safe Drinking Water Act is designed to prevent groundwater contamination, “if the presence of such contaminant may result in such system’s not complying with any national primary drinking water regulation or may otherwise adversely affect the health of persons.” 42 U.S.C. 300h(d)(2). (And not even all groundwater, either, just groundwater that meets the criteria for “a public water supply”.) When CO2 dissolves in water it produces carbonic acid (H2CO3) which, along with those fizzy little bubbles, is in every soda and carbonated beverage you’ve ever had.
We understand EPA’s desire to avoid all those pesky CCS storage issues, such as how long the CO2 must remain underground, who is responsible for leakage, etc., but this is getting ridiculous: Encouraging CCS at every opportunity, but unwilling to address the attendant regulatory issues, is both irresponsible and inexplicable. CCS investors presumably understand that EPA’s playbook puts all future projects one court decision away from – at best — lengthy delays, or at worst complete derailment. Given Kemper’s latest bad news for CCS (cost overruns now top $3 billion), the risks of EPA’s approach could easily kill any remaining enthusiasm investors have for these projects.