Missouri utilities seek lawsuit cap on waste storage

Tuesday, March 24, 2009 | 3:58 p.m. CDT; updated 4:52 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 24, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers are proposing to restrict lawsuits over potential problems caused by utilities that store carbon dioxide underground.

A Springfield utility is experimenting with storing the carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 2,000 feet below ground in porous sandstone rock. The pilot project is designed to determine if carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas blamed by many for contributing to global warming — can be quarantined and prevented from entering the atmosphere.

Supporters of the project said Tuesday that some utilities are skittish about using techniques that are developed through that research because of uncertainty over the potential liability.

Gary Pendergrass, the project manager for City Utilities of Springfield, told the House Energy and Environment Committee that storing carbon dioxide underground is safe, calling the most severe potential problem a gradual trickling of the gas up through the rock.

But "no risk doesn't mean no lawsuits," Pendergrass said.

The committee is considering legislation that would cap damages at $300,000 per claim for most lawsuits related to the underground storage of carbon dioxide, with total damages up to $2 million. The bill also would bar punitive damages.

Two lawyers on the House panel said they were skeptical about restricting lawsuits while at least one Democrat said he also had concerns that the efforts could inhibit attempts to use more alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and hydropower.

"It's counterintuitive that you would be here ... asking for limited liability in a situation where there's no risk," said Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis.

David Klarich, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said the legislation is "perplexing" because it would extend to investor-owned utilities many of the same liability protections enjoyed by government entities.

He said that by essentially absolving utilities of liability for something that goes wrong when storing the carbon dioxide, lawmakers have removed some of the incentive for a company to be attentive and careful.

Interest in the prospects for sequestering carbon dioxide underground has risen as President Barack Obama and Congress are expected to propose a system of taxing power plant emission of greenhouse gases.

There are projects in several states to study the potential for storing carbon dioxide underground, but the Missouri research is unique because of how shallow the waste gas would be placed.

Pendergrass said that in the other projects, the carbon dioxide is turned into a "liquid-like" substance under high pressure and temperatures. It then is buried thousands of feet under ground.

The Springfield project plans to keep the carbon dioxide as a gas and bury it closer to the surface with a rock layer sealing it off.

Supporters of the liability protections said that finding ways to store carbon dioxide emissions from power plants within the state could save Missouri electric consumers billions of dollars, because it could avoid federal taxes on emissions and would limit how much waste gas must be pumped to sites elsewhere.

Pendergrass said the Springfield utility plans a three-dimensional geological study of the site later this year before digging experimental wells to determine if the rock formation is suitable for trapping the waste gas.

In late 2010 or 2011, the utility would experiment with pumping in and trying to store food-grade carbon dioxide.

City Utilities' experiment at the Southwest Power Station has more than $2 million in federal funding and support from five other utilities.


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