Geologist finds a ‘clean coal’ solution costly

Every fall the University of Kansas takes a look at the Kansas economy at a conference that draws on the knowledge and experience of a bevy of experts from various fields.
Donna K. Ginther, director of the Center for Economic and Business Analysis and a professor of economics, organized the conference at KU and made one of the opening presentations Thursday.
She said the business sectors that have accounted for growth in the past — manufacturing, finance, information (the Sprint Corporation in Kansas City), retail and construction — will continue to shrink in the near term. Where the state must look for new jobs, in her opinion, is from energy and alternative energy; bioscience, transportation and agriculture.
Other speakers ex-panded on those areas.
Rex Buchanan, deputy director of the Kansas Geological Survey, said Kansas is still a significant producer of oil and gas and that natural gas produced from the state’s coal seams was a new source of the fuel that had increased the overall production and resulted in new jobs and income, exclusively in eastern Kansas and primarily in southeast Kansas — Allen County included.
Buchanan said new horizontal drilling technology had made it possible to siphon off gas that arises from shallow beds of coal and feed it into pipelines.
“This is a way to mine coal without actually going down into the ground and taking it out,” he said.
While the amount of gas being collected and sold with this technology is substantial, the coal seams are shallow and narrow — which is why conventional mining is no longer profitable — which means that the new gas supply will be depleted in a relatively short time.
Kansas still is a major producer of natural gas, he said, but the price of the fuel is depressed now because of increased supplies. Gas is also being siphoned off beds of shale in Texas and elsewhere in very large quantities, increasing known reserves and bringing prices down. As a consequence, the major oil and gas companies are not drilling in the Hugoton field in western Kansas, but are spending their money looking for bigger production elsewhere.

BUCHANAN SAID Kansas will be a major player in the storage of carbon dioxide collected from the burning of coal in generating plants — if it is ever decided to capture and inter greenhouse gases to reduce global warming. He used the conditional because, he said, “we must know a lot more than we do now to make that feasible.”
Buchanan said it would be very important to be certain that CO2 and other greenhouse gases would stay underground once it was pumped into abandoned wells, aquifers, or other “sinks.”
Sequestering greenhouse gases below the surface is an expensive, complicated process. First they must be separated from the other elements in the smoke. Then the gases to be interred must be compressed enough to turn then into liquid and pumped into abandoned well shafts or shafts created for the purpose. Experience shows the material should be buried at least 3,000 feet under the surface.
Because it is under such high pressure, the “sinks” where it is stored must be impervious, otherwise the gases will find ways to the surface and the whole process will prove to be wasted effort. Buchanan said that it will be necessary to “map” what lies below the surface before an area can be used for gas sequestering.
He used Allen County as an example. Because natural gas was discovered here and exploited many wells were drilled. Unless it is possible to pinpoint those well shafts, it would be counterproductive to force liquified gases underground here.
Buchanan said power company engineers have estimated that it will take about one-third of the energy produced by a plant to accomplish sequestering greenhouse gases, a cost that would greatly reduce the cost advantage that coal now has over other fuels used to generate electricity.
Contamination of un-derground water is an-other concern, he said.
“Too many politicians think we can just suck off the greenhouse gases, condense them, bury them and forget them,” he said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

OBSERVATIONS and reports made by other speakers at the conference will follow next week.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.