Can you burn your carbon and keep it buried too?

A scientific testing firm is launching a high profile investigation at the world’s largest carbon capture and storage (CCS) test site to find out.

News of the study came days after the release of results from a private consultant’s report showing evidence that carbon dioxide is leaking from the $85 million International Energy Agency GHG Weyburn-Midale CO2 Monitoring and Storage Project. Located at the Weyburn oil fields in Saskatchewan, millions of tons of the gas has for years been compressed and injected deep underground to coax remaining oil from near-depleted wells. Most of the remaining CO2 – 18 million metric tons as of last July – is then stored in permeable sedimentary rock 1.5 kilometers underground. And there it is supposed to remain.

Although quickly dismissed as flawed science by a team of geologic experts, the report’s findings went viral in the Canadian media, inspiring alarming headlines and prompting a public relations disaster for proponents of the technology increasingly considered key to greenhouse gas mitigation. As the United States, Canada and a growing number of industrialized nations look to CCS projects to help meet their GHG-reduction mandates, the $85 million Weyburn project serves as something of litmus test; a confirmed leak there could bolster critics and cast serious doubt over the technology’s safety and effectiveness. There are as yet only a few test fields being studied for their sequestration potential.

The investigation is being led by the International Performance Assessment Center for Geologic Storage of Carbon Dioxide (IPAC-CO2), a non-profit Saskatchewan-based firm that said it has begun assembling an international team of experts who are unaffiliated with the project to conduct its own independent analysis. TheUniversity of Austin’s Gulf Coast Carbon Center will be among the study collaborators.

The report that sparked the recent scrutiny, the work of Petro-Find GeoChem, a two-person independent Canadian firm, was commissioned for less than $10,000 by Cameron and Jane Kerr, a Saskatchewan couple who own land that sits above the oil field and neighbors the CCS site. The study’s conclusions support the couple’s long held assertion that the bubbling pond water, dead animals, small explosions, and other anomalies on their property are the result of high levels of CO2 in their soil that leaked to the surface from fractures at the nearby storage site.

The Geo-Chem findings spurred an adamant rebuttal by the Petroleum Technology Research Centre, which monitors the project on behalf of site operator Cenovus Energy and receives funding from Canadian regional and national government agencies as well as the oil and gas industry.

“The Petro‐Find report reaches a conclusion that is unsubstantiated by the limited data in their study. The report contains technical errors, invokes undocumented data, and provides minimal to no information on their scientific methods or analytical techniques,” PTRC said. Consistently rigorous site monitoring and testing have shown no evidence of leaks, PTRC noted, arguing that high levels of CO2 have been found to naturally occur in prairie soils near Weyburn, as indicated by tests conducted prior to injection.

But EcoJustice lawyer Barry Robinson, who is representing the Kerrs, said that despite the vehemence of PTRC’s dismissal of the results, the firm has yet to explain the cause of the anomalies on his clients’ property. In fact, he says, the PTRC excluded the Kerrs’ water well from farm water well sampling programs conducted in 2006 and 2009. “It’s funny because the reality is that no one has ever measured CO2 on the Kerrs’ property,” said Robinson. For years, the Kerrs have asked the Saskatchewan government – an investor in the CCS project – to conduct a thorough investigation of the anomalies, a request that has until now gone unheeded. In 2005 the couple moved off their property, citing safety concerns.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Robinson said of the new study. A thorough, well-funded analysis has long been a major objective for his clients, he added. He questions, however, the credentials of the firm conducting the tests. “That,” he said, “scares me a bit.”

IPAC-CO2 was established in 2009 with $14 million in funding from the Saskatchewan government, Royal Dutch Shell and the Government of Canada – all whom have a known vested interest in CCS technology and in particular, have helped fund the Weyburn site. IPAC-CO2’s mission, described on its website, is to “support the development, acceptance and commercialization of carbon capture and storage technologies as a safe and effective means of reducing CO2 emissions by advancing geologic storage.”

Since the project broke ground in 2000, the millions of tons of carbon dioxide have been piped hundreds of miles across the border from a North Dakota coal gasification plant and injected into an oil reservoir at the Weyburn fields, where Cenovus uses the gas to retrieve remaining reserves – a technique known as enhanced oil recovery. The project has received major funding from Canadian national and regional governments, as well as $7 million U.S. contribution, according to a Department of Energy spokesperson. Both nations’ oil and gas industries have also offered generous support.

“The burden of proof should be with the operator, that everything is in order,” said George Perridas, a carbon scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The most reliable method to detect a CO2 leak is not by measuring at the surface, he said, but by monitoring levels above the cap rock – the impermeable geologic layer – thousands of feet below the ground. “The bottom line here is that we won’t know … we have to wait and see what the studies show.” The NRDC has expressed cautious support for carbon sequestration technology, and has been calling for rigorous studies to give an accurate portrait of its potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Perridas recently served on a CCS review panel in California that recommended the technology as a safe and effective tool for helping to reduce GHGs in the state. He said the Weyburn project is a flagship test, and the results will have broader policy implications.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to find out what really happened there.”

Watch a clip from the documentary “Dirty Business,” featuring the Kerrs at the Weyburn oil fields.