This $6 million study is the first in the U.S. to investigate the potential for permanent underground storage of CO2 in offshore geologic formations.

This $6 million study is the first in the U.S. to investigate the potential for permanent underground storage of CO2 in offshore geologic formations.

The University of Texas at Austin will use $6 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Texas General Land Office to identify state-owned areas underlying the Gulf of Mexico where carbon dioxide (CO2) can be stored safely and economically.

This study is the first in the U.S. to investigate the potential for permanent underground storage of CO2 in offshore geologic formations. Carbon storage is one option being considered for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

“This is a dramatic shift in thinking about carbon storage in the U.S.,” said Tip Meckel, co-principal investigator on the project and a research associate at the Bureau of Economic Geology, a research unit at the university’s Jackson School of Geosciences. “Until the funding of this proposal, most people thought of carbon storage as an onshore exercise.”

Thanks to decades of oil and gas exploration, the Texas state lands of the northern Gulf of Mexico are one of the most geologically studied areas in the world.

“That makes us very comfortable with the idea of starting new activities in this area,” said Meckel. He noted preliminary estimates of carbon storage capacity suggest many billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide could be stored in offshore geologic formations in Texas, making offshore storage an extremely promising resource for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

Texas has a large capacity for carbon storage on state-owned lands because of its size and because state ownership extends 12 nautical miles offshore, compared to three miles for all other states except Florida. Other advantages include available sources of carbon dioxide from industry and power generation, existing infrastructure from the oil and gas business, and fewer environmental risks compared to sequestration below onshore land.

Storing CO2 deep beneath the Gulf floor could also potentially earn substantial amounts of money for public education in Texas.

“This is yet another way the Texas General Land Office is exploring new income streams for the Permanent School Fund,” said Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. “Oil and gas exploration in the Gulf has brought more than $6 billion to the fund, but oil and gas are finite resources and someday that money will dry up. Storing CO2 in subsurface formations beneath the Gulf floor may replace some of that lost revenue.”

The Department of Energy grant ($4.8 million) is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The General Land Office funds ($1.2 million) were set aside during the most recently ended session of the Texas state legislature to assess the potential for creating an offshore carbon repository. ION Geophysical, a company that acquires and processes seismic data for the oil and gas industry, has donated access to extensive regional seismic datasets valued at $9.8 million. Formosa Plastics and its subsidiary, Neumin Production Company, have provided a 3-D seismic survey valued at $3.3 million.

“ION is pleased to contribute our GulfSPAN seismic data library to this investigation,” said Bob Peebler, ION chief executive officer. “We have helped numerous companies identify hydrocarbon-producing structures within the Gulf of Mexico region and believe it is only natural that the same data be used to characterize potential carbon storage sites.”

After developing a regional picture of potential storage areas, the researchers will identify a select number of sites for intense study where they will collect new site-specific data and drill core samples. The result will be a detailed geological site characterization of specific reservoirs that might be used in the future to economically store industrially produced CO2 emissions.

“Texas uses a tremendous amount of energy to produce industrial products for the nation,” said Scott Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology. “As a result, Texas also produces a lot of CO2. This work brings together state, federal, industry, and university partners to study how and where large volumes of CO2 could potentially be stored. I am very proud of our carbon team and our national and international partners.”

Other scientists involved in the project at The University of Texas at Austin include Ramón Treviño of the Bureau of Economic Geology, a co-principal investigator, Steven Bryant at the Center for Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering and Matthew Hornbach at the Institute for Geophysics. Outside partners include Sandia Technologies LLC, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

EDF will assess environmental risks, solicit the concerns of stakeholders and collaborate with international organizations planning or already conducting offshore carbon storage.

“EDF views the investigation of offshore storage resources as an essential component of a comprehensive national mitigation plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Scott Anderson, senior policy adviser for EDF. “We do not expect to find any reason why this resource should not be considered for sequestration, provided the risks are appropriately identified and managed.”

The Bureau of Economic Geology, through its Gulf Coast Carbon Center, has a wealth of technical experience from years of conducting carbon storage experiments. The bureau has received more funding for carbon storage research than any other academic unit in the country including an ongoing $34 million, multi-year field study of carbon storage and monitoring strategies in southwest Mississippi.

For more information about research at the Jackson School, contact J.B. Bird at jbird@jsg.utexas.edu, 512-232-9623.