Feds withhold records on Wyo. CO2-capture project

Citing legal investigation, Energy Department withholds records on Wyo. carbon-capture project

Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- The U.S. Department of Energy is withholding records involving a Wyoming carbon-capture project on the grounds that a legal investigation is under way and that releasing documents could compromise the probe.

The carbon-capture study at the site of the Two Elk Energy Park site about 15 miles east of Wright in the Powder River Basin got almost $10 million in economic stimulus grants from the Energy Department.

Two Elk developer North American Power Group, based in Greenwood Village, Colo., halted the carbon-capture study over a year ago. Scientists involved in the research say they expected a well to be drilled so they could field-test data they'd gathered. The study never progressed to that phase.

The Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents that might show what happened with the carbon-capture project. The Energy Department has denied the request in its entirety, citing a FOIA exemption for records involving matters under investigation, according to a letter to AP from the chief counsel for the department's National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh, Pa.

"This exemption protects an active investigation due to interference from premature disclosure," the attorney, R. Paul Detwiler, wrote April 23.

Company Vice President Brad Enzi, who oversees the Two Elk project, said Tuesday he didn't know enough about the carbon-capture study to comment on the federal investigation.

"That's all getting handled through the Denver office," Enzi said. "I just don't handle any of that."

A phone message left Tuesday for North American Power Group President Michael Ruffatto at company headquarters wasn't immediately returned.

The Two Elk project involves construction of a roughly 300-megawatt power plant fueled by low-grade coal from Powder River Basin coal mines and beetle-killed timber from Rocky Mountain forests. The often-delayed plant has been in the works since 1996. A storage building and partial foundation have been built.

On April 1, the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council voted 4-2 to grant a permit change under which the plant would be completed in 2016.

Department of Energy officials at the National Energy Technology Laboratory and department headquarters in Washington, D.C., have declined to discuss the carbon-capture portion of the Two Elk project, referring all questions to Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Skirtich in Pennsylvania. A spokeswoman for Skirtich did not return a message Tuesday.

The carbon-capture study assessed whether geological strata deep beneath the Two Elk site could hold greenhouse gases pumped underground to prevent them from contributing to climate change. For the project's first phase, researchers at Montana State and Stanford University looked at existing geological data.

The researchers expected that a well would be drilled to field-test that data, according to Sally Benson, a research professor at Stanford's School of Earth Sciences who was involved in the study.

The Two Elk site isn't ideal for trapping gasses but might be able to capture carbon dioxide on a moderate scale, Benson said in a recent interview.

"Of course, we would have been very interested to have well data to compare our models to," Benson said. "We thought that the project would go through to drilling a well and so forth. That was the expectation."

After the study, the well would have been cemented to a level where it would serve to supply water for Two Elk, according to the Wyoming State Engineer's Office.

State permits for three wells at the site expired Dec. 31.

The company has since applied for new permits for the three wells and the State Engineer's Office approved them April 5. None of the wells would be used for carbon-capture research under the new permits, according to the office.

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