The big business of burying carbon

Applicants for EPA carbon storage permits must convince the agency that they can contain both the plume of injected carbon dioxide and a secondary plume of salt water containing the CO2 pushed out of the rock – what drilling engineers call the pressure pulse. EPA requires evidence that none of the smoke plumes will contaminate drinking water during project operations and for a standard 50-year post-CO period2 Injection stops – but the agency may decide to shorten or lengthen this for a specific project.

Stream employs a well-heeled team, including oil industry veterans and a former senior EPA official, to oversee the permit application, which was filed in October 2020 and is still under review by the agency nearly two years later. Within his company, Stream named the carbon storage game Project Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom (and sometimes war).

The technical work is being led by a British petroleum geologist named Peter Jackson, who used to work at BP. His team planned Project Minerva much the way Meckel’s UT group mapped the Gulf Coast. Using borehole logs and 3D seismic data, scientists modeled the Frio under tens of thousands of acres on and around Gray Ranch. Then they simulated how the carbon dioxide plume and pressure pulse would behave depending on where they drill wells and how they operate them.

In their computer models, the resulting plume movements appeared as multicolored blobs against a rocky blue background. The best blobs were round, a cohesive shape that suggests the cloud is easier to control. In other places the CO2 would not behave: sometimes it escaped upwards; sometimes it would spread like a pancake or, as Jackson recalls, “like a spider.” Any form, the team feared, could compromise project safety and raise alarms with the EPA. The simulations prompted the Stream team to select two general locations on the ranch where they intend to drill wells.

Stream agrees to show them to me one morning. He picks me up in Lake Charles in his spruced up black Chevy Tahoe and we head west toward Texas until we’re a few miles from the state line. We exit the highway in the town of Vinton, Louisiana and arrive at Gray Ranch. We turn right onto Gray Road. We turn left onto Ged Road. Next to cowboy boot shaped Ged Lake we climb a subtle rise known as Vinton Dome.

One of many peacocks at Gray Ranch rests on a fence.

Photo: Katie Thompson

A white house overlooks the Gray Ranch on top of the Vinton Dome.

Photo: Katie Thompson

These are iconic names in the Stream family lore. As early as the 1880s, a local surveyor named John Geddings Gray – ‘Ged’ – began aggregating this acreage for the benefit of timber and cattle. Four years after the Gusher at Spindletop, Ged saw a topographically similar view at Vinton Dome and bought it. He opened up the area for drilling, and his hunch paid off.

Portrait of John Geddings Grey.

Photo: Katie Thompson

Today, the top of Vinton Dome offers a panoramic view of part of the Stream empire. On the right are barns bearing the family’s cattle and quarter horse mark. All around, rusty pump jacks rise and fall, hauling up oil and gas. Stream, Ged Gray’s great-great grandson, compares the ranch to the cuts of beef he grills for his three young children, who think he’s the best steak cook. “That’s just because I only buy the best fillet,” he says. There’s a rule: “Don’t break it.”

We stop at one of the expected fountain sites. The area around him shines with wire grass, bluestem and fennel. It is visited by three types of herons: bovine, large and snowy. Being Louisiana, it is also canceled with a row of yellow bars; They mark the underground route of the Williams Transco Pipeline, which carries natural gas from offshore platforms in the Gulf to the interstate gas distribution system. If it seems odd that this fossil-fuel ranch for a century could play an influential role in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also telling — a measure of how economic signals are changing in a part of the world that is has long been on the move has adapted the way it uses its natural resources to meet changing market demands. “People will ultimately have to prevail” to fight climate change, says Stream. “You can’t just talk about it.”

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