Tri-State Generation & Transmission officials hope a $3.8 million grant award to study carbon sequestration in the mountains south of Craig is one step toward giving the company a lasting future in Northwest Colorado.
Tri-State invested heavily in coal, as demonstrated by the three-unit coal power plant south of Craig that it partially owns and operates.
That said, the company understands concerns some have with coal's continued use, and it wants to do its best to alleviate those fears while still providing affordable and abundant energy to consumers, Tri-State Communications Manager Jim Van Someren said.
Tri-State was one of five financial partners awarded the grant by the U.S. Department of Energy this week.
"We obviously are invested in coal-based electrical generation, and we will continue to use those resources that we're invested in," Van Someren said. "We just recognize we need to get to a place where we're using coal smarter."
Carbon sequestration is one possible path toward clean coal technology, he added.
"We need to be developing these technologies today so we can continue to use the resources we have," Van Someren said.
Carbon sequestration is an experimental procedure to inject carbon emissions into the ground, instead of allowing them to travel into the earth's atmosphere, where some scientists think it rapidly speeds up global warming.
The University of Utah, Colorado Geological Survey, Shell Exploration and Production and Slumberger Carbon Services also donated portions of a $1 million match to the federal government's award, said Vince Matthews, Colorado state geologist and Geological Survey director.
In addition, Moffat County, the Bureau of Land Management, State Land Board and several politicians wrote letters of support, Matthews added.
The widespread interest did not surprise him, as the kind of saltwater aquifer formation that the study will focus on is widespread throughout the Rocky Mountains.
"If this proves suitable for sequestering carbon, it means there is a potential for sequestration in a large number of places in the Rockies," Matthews said.
The research group plans to proceed in three, one-year phases, he said, and it hopes to get started as soon as the money rolls in, which should take about a month.
They will first conduct seismic readings of the landscape between Craig and Hamilton, as well as gather geological data from energy companies that have drilled wells in the region to create a geological model of the area.
In the second year, the group plans to drill its own well at a site north of Hamilton.
From this well, researchers will take four core samples from saline aquifers about 8,000 feet down, as well as water samples from the underground reservoirs.
The groups plans to use the third year to analyze the data and generate conclusions.
Matthews has said previously that saline aquifers are important because they are not used for drinking water, and they have proven they can hold natural gases for thousands of years.
However, one of the group's four core samples will be from the top of an aquifer so researchers can study how capably the rock formations could hold carbon dioxide.
Matthews said the group will not inject any CO2 into the ground as part of this study, and it likely will be several years before scientists are comfortable with sequestration in the Craig area.
Any company or government agency that would want to use the mountains around Craig for carbon sequestration would have to do a lot more research after the study before going forward, Matthews said.
"One well in this structure is not enough to understand what would happen if you injected carbon," he said.
Matthews' agency, the Colorado Geological Survey, and Tri-State both are involved in other clean coal research projects, as well.