Wyoming CarbonSAFE to determine whether carbon dioxide can be stored underground near Dry Fork Station

Wyoming CarbonSafe

They call it “Carbon ValleyTM” — yes, it’s trademarked, by Energy Capital Economic Development of Gillette, Wyoming, in February 2020. It’s a term that has been used locally by city and county officials, economic developers, and economic advocates, such as at the Campbell County (Wyoming) Chamber of Commerce. It’s meant to describe the goal of turning Campbell County into a global hub for advanced carbon research, development, and commercialization.

Carbon Valley is where the Dry Fork Station takes up residence, and serves as home to two research projects: Wyoming CarbonSAFE and the Integrated Test Center. This area of Wyoming is also home to a carbon dioxide (CO2) pipeline that stretches from southwest Wyoming up into Montana, existing enhanced oil recovery and undeveloped oil fields, and the Wyoming Innovation Center, which supports the coal research conducted by University of Wyoming and School of Energy Resources.

Wyoming CarbonSAFE, implemented by the U.S. Department of Energy, is investigating the feasibility of underground CO2 emissions storage from coal-based electric generation facilities. Feasibility is determined by whether storage is found to be practical, secure, and permanent. Several deep geologic layers are being studied for their suitability for CO2 storage, including the site at Dry Fork Station near Gillette.

Starting in 2018 through this summer, the mission of the project was to validate the feasibility of carbon capture on the site from a technical sense: Is the geology capable of carbon storage? Are there underground rock seals robust enough to hold the carbon dioxide there permanently? 

Fred McLaughlin, senior research scientist with the University of Wyoming Research School of Energy Resources, says the project needed to determine whether the formation could store up to 50 million metric tons of CO2 over 25 years within the designated storage site. “I think we’ve proven feasibility within the storage area; now it’s a matter of finalizing those boundaries. Do we need three different sites, or four? Or two, three, or five wells? One of the major goals of Phase 3 is to really dial in those metrics,” he says.

Phase 3 of the project began Oct. 1, which includes finalizing site characterization, permitting wells for CO2 storage, integrating carbon capture technology from the Wyoming Integrated Test Center, and environmental analysis for commercial operation. The actual injection of CO2 won’t happen until Phase 3 is successfully completed and parties agree to move on to Phase 4.

McLaughlin says a good amount of work had been done even before CarbonSAFE to learn more about the subsurface in Wyoming. “We learned a lot more about the deep reservoirs than anybody has ever been able to learn at that site. We didn’t have any wells, prior to Phase 2, that went that deep [two miles],” McLaughlin says. “We have identified a couple new reservoir zones, or what we would call flow zones internally, that would be really good CO2 injection targets.”

Scott Quillinan, director of research at the University of Wyoming Research School of Energy Resources, says the research teams were able to come within three to four feet of accuracy on their models. “So you can imagine how impressive that is, two miles below the subsurface. … We did find one deep sandstone reservoir below the injection target that we didn’t know was there, so that was pretty neat to find,” he says. “The discovery of that additional deep sandstone really helps the viability of the project because it’ll increase the overall storage capacity.”

Phase 3 brings the first true mashup of CarbonSAFE with another research project at the Dry Fork Station — the Wyoming Integrated Test Center. The University of Wyoming team will work with Membrane Technology Research. “They are conducting an engineering FEED (front-end engineering design) study for carbon capture at Dry Fork Station. For the first time, we will be integrating that study into ours,” Quillinan says. “We are working for Basin Electric to determine what this storage site might look like. At the end of Phase 3 if it looks like it’s operational, we would be handing over the keys. … This project helps remove all the risk for characterizing the subsurface; the U.S. Dept. of Energy is taking that financial risk.”
Both Quillinan and McLaughlin say the employees of Dry Fork Station, and residents of Gillette, have been interested in their progress.

“When we stop at the gas station, for example, we have the University of Wyoming logo on our vehicle. A lot of people will come up and ask how the project is progressing, and what other projects are on the horizon,” Quillinan says. “They have a lot of questions about storage space and when will this [injection] begin. There is a lot of local knowledge and interest.”

While locals are especially interested in the future of the coal industry, Quillinan says the benefit of the work on CarbonSAFE goes beyond coal. The Greencore Pipeline, a CO2 pipeline that delivers carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery to fields in Wyoming, is a major piece of infrastructure already in place for the transportation 
of CO2

“Everybody is starting to realize this isn’t just about coal; this is about fossil energy in general. There is a lot of natural gas folks, and oil and gas folks, in the region that are interested in seeing this project progress and how it can be applicable and employable in other industries,” Quillinan says.