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Energy & Resources
Burying carbon dioxide, Part I
Yukos under fire
Mineral of the Month: Potash

Burying carbon dioxide, Part I

On Oct. 4, 2004, an international team of researchers converged on Texas and began injecting liquefied carbon dioxide underground into an abandoned oil field. For nine straight days, they injected the gas, watching it spread throughout the oil reservoir. “We wanted to show that we could put carbon dioxide underground safely with no side effects and that we could successfully measure what would happen once the carbon dioxide was underground,” says Susan Hovorka, a researcher at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas in Austin.

Researchers from the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory install a monitoring system in the soil at a historic oil field in Texas, where carbon dioxide was injected into the ground to test the feasibility of geological carbon sequestration. Courtesy of the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology.

Over recent weeks and months, results have been pouring out of the research project, a collaboration that has been in the works for two years between national labs, the U.S. Geological Survey, and oil and gas companies (see Geotimes, March 2003). “Everything we predicted we would see, we have seen,” Hovorka says. “It was a slam dunk.”

Called the Frio Brine Pilot Experiment (named after the Frio Formation sandstone in which the reservoir is located), the project was designed to field test modeling, monitoring and verification techniques that could be applied to geologic carbon sequestration; the goal is to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by storing it underground. Because this site at the South Liberty oil field, about 30 miles northeast of Houston, resembles much of the subsurface of the Gulf Coast, it was a good test locale, Hovorka says.

Hovorka and colleagues injected 1,600 tons of carbon dioxide, which they had bought from a nearby food-grade carbon dioxide producer (for beer and soda). Using seismic techniques, they monitored the two injection wells and the entire oil field subsurface, also testing any geochemical changes of the water and gas in the system and watching for any leaks of carbon dioxide. The researchers found that soon after all the carbon dioxide was injected, the plume spread out and may have been permanently trapped by the same forces that originally trapped the oil in place. And, Hovorka says, none of the gas has escaped to the surface. The researchers will keep monitoring the site for the next nine months track any further changes.

The Frio project was a simple research pilot project, says Ben Rostron, a geologist at the University of Alberta who is involved in a massive oil recovery and carbon sequestration project at the Weyburn oil field in Saskatchewan. But in being simple, it helps geoscientists learn more about the subsurface and what the carbon dioxide does once put there, he says. “We can always make a prediction and make a model. But now we want to look at [these fields] and see if we are right” about what happens, Rostron says.

Hovorka says that the goal of the project was to “do fundamental scientific” research. “We felt a simple system like this one would be optimal for the research process — and it was,” she says.

With the confidence in modeling and monitoring techniques gained from the Frio project, Hovorka says, she and her colleagues next will be injecting the gas into oil fields that are not yet depleted, trying to enhance the oil recovery there. Such an experiment has been ongoing at the 180-square-kilometer Weyburn oil field since 2000.

Megan Sever

Next month, “Burying carbon dioxide, Part II” will look at the Weyburn carbon sequestration project.


Geotimes, March 2003

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Yukos Under Fire

Oil giant Yukos is crumbling, after a strange auction of its subsidiary Yuganskneftegaz (or Yugansk) in December and a series of legal troubles. Whether or not the embattled company survives, the end point may be the same: The Russian government will have effectively re-nationalized a major oil company first privatized in the 1990s.

Yukos has been under fire by the Russian government since October 2003, when its former owner Mikhail Khodorkhovsky was jailed for tax evasion (see Geotimes, April 2004). The sale of Yugansk, the company’s largest oil-producing unit, was meant to cover part of Yukos’ $28 billion tax backlog — of which Yugansk owes about $8 billion.

The Russian government seemingly tapped Gazpromneft, a subsidiary of government-owned Gazprom, to buy Yugansk, but Gazprom’s efforts were complicated by a bankruptcy trial in Texas, brought by Yukos representatives on Dec. 16. Instead, in a strange bidding session with only one bidder, two nameless representatives of an unknown company won Yugansk for a little over $9 billion. Gazpromneft representatives watched without bidding.

In the following week, the buyer was revealed as the previously unknown BaikalFinansGroup. That company’s shares were then acquired by Rosneft, Russia’s fifth-largest oil company. Government-owned Rosneft itself was scheduled to merge with Gazprom. On Dec. 30, the Russian government announced that Yugansk would not be part of the Gazprom-Rosneft merger, but would remain an independent, nationally owned company. A following announcement raised the possibility that 20 percent of its equity might be purchased by the China National Petroleum Corporation.

At press time, the legality of the series of initial deals that split Yugansk from Yukos remained in question. But on Dec. 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the proceedings “normal.”

“Whether or not [the proceedings] should be considered normal in their lack of transparency is a bigger issue for the future of doing business in Russia or dealing with its new state-owned companies,” according to a memo from the PFC Energy company’s Russia and Caspian Service.

The United States had previously voiced concerns over the auction of Yukos. “We had hoped for a solution that would allow for the legitimate enforcement of tax laws, but avoid harming investors, especially American investors,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan, in a briefing on Dec. 21. He said that the Bush administration is concerned that Russia’s conduct could have “a chilling effect” on foreign investment in Russia and on its participation in the global economy.

At the end of December, credit-rating company Standard & Poor’s downgraded Yukos after the company defaulted on bank loans, which it was unable to pay without income from Yugansk. Meanwhile, Yukos representatives continued to pursue their case in January in U.S. bankruptcy court.

Naomi Lubick

"Russian oil rumbles," Geotimes, April 2004

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Mineral of the Month: Potash

James P. Searls, the recently retired potash commodity specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey, has compiled the following information on potash, a primary source of soluble potassium.

In 1807, Sir Humphrey Davy discovered a metal during the electrolysis of potassium hydroxide; he named the metal potassium because it came from potash recovered from wood ashes. The four types of potash are the water-soluble compounds potassium chloride, potassium sulfate, potassium-magnesium sulfate and potassium nitrate. The early uses of potash were in glass and soap manufacturing, as a diuretic, and another form was used in gunpowder.

Today, potash is typically used as an agricultural fertilizer. Potash, along with other primary plant nutrients such as fixed nitrogen and soluble phosphorus, is required for plant growth, as it provides potassium ions to plants.

Potassium, however, does not enter the plant structure as carbon, water and other elements do. Instead, the water-soluble potash compounds are found in the fruit of the plant and provide a source of potassium to fruit-eating animals, which, along with sodium, is required to control the water balance of the body in all animals. Potassium and sodium are also needed for electrical signals to travel along nerve paths for sensory information and for muscle contraction in the heart and lungs.

In addition to its use as a fertilizer, potash has important industrial applications. Potassium chloride is important where it is used in aluminum recycling, the production of potassium hydroxide, metal electroplating, oil-well drilling mud, steel heat-treating, sidewalk and street de-icing, and water softening. The glass industry uses potassium carbonate for television and computer monitor production. It is also used to produce alkaline batteries, animal feed supplements, some types of fire extinguishers, food products, pharmaceutical preparations and photographic chemicals, and as a catalyst in the manufacture of synthetic rubber. These nonfertilizer end-uses usually account for 10 percent to 15 percent of annual potash consumption in the United States.

In 2003, the United States produced about 2.4 million metric tons of potassium chloride, potassium sulfate and potassium-magnesium sulfate, and U.S. exports of these averaged 0.8 million metric tons. Imports of potassium chloride, potassium sulfate and potassium nitrate equaled 7.8 million metric tons. The United States had an apparent consumption of approximately 9.5 million metric tons of potash. World production was 51 million metric tons in 2003, with Belarus, Canada, Germany and Russia producing about 75 percent of the world’s estimated potassium chloride production.

Potash is mined primarily from evaporite deposits. Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Spain, Ukraine and the United States produce potash from underground evaporites. In addition, potash is produced from brines occurring at Salar de Atacama in Chile, Qinghai Lake in China, the Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan, and the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

For more information on potash, visit

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