Aerial view looking north along Middle River in the Delta. Photo taken March 08, 2019 by Ken James / DWR

DELTA STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL: The potential of deep carbon capture and storage in the Delta and Central Valley

As California works towards reducing greenhouse gases to address climate change, carbon capture and storage have been presented as options for achieving that goal.  Of particular note, the Delta has recently been identified as a potential site for carbon storage, and programs are being considered by local landowners who may participate in these future carbon storage projects.

At the November meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, George Peridas, Ph.D., Director of Carbon Management Partnerships at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, briefed the Council on the potential for carbon capture and storage in the Delta and the Central Valley.  Delta landowner Tom Zuckerman provided the landowner perspective.

First, Campbell Ingram, the Delta Conservancy executive officer, briefly introduced the topic.  He began by noting that on numerous occasions, he has been before the Council, talking about work in the Delta to reverse subsidence by utilizing rice cultivation and managed wetlands that can also sequester carbon and engage in the carbon market.  That work continues and is making progress.

But that is not what is being presented at this meeting. Instead, this is capturing carbon from various sources and storing it well below the surface – in some cases, close to two miles below the surface of the Delta, he said.

This process would utilize emission sources for carbon that can be captured readily, such as electricity generation, hydrogen production, cement production, and petroleum refinement. In addition, agricultural and forest waste presents additional opportunities.

Waste byproducts can be turned into other products that keep carbon from going in the atmosphere,” explained Mr. Ingram.  “Those processes actually generate carbon to make those conversions, and we can capture that carbon.  We also know that to meet our carbon objectives, we may actually need to capture carbon directly from the atmosphere. So really, what we’re talking about is looking at all of those sources, trying to capture that carbon from those sources, compress it, transport it and store it below ground in the Delta.”

Mr. Ingram noted that this technology has been successfully employed in other parts of the world, and the Delta offers a prime opportunity.  Industries required to reduce carbon emissions or those who want to reduce their carbon emissions are looking for places to store carbon and access revenue streams and tax credits. 

Given that revenue stream and the prime real estate that we have in the Delta, it has created a lot of activity,” he said.  “There are five or more companies out there actively engaging with Delta landowners, private landowners, NGOs, and even state landowners. And they’re trying to develop pilot projects with the expectation that one or more of these projects might actually go to permitting sometime in the next 12 months.”

In addition, there are about ten agencies that have some level of regulatory oversight or permitting that would be associated with this, including the Delta Stewardship Council that would be looking at consistency with the Delta Plan.”

Given this activity, the Delta Conservancy has brought together the Delta Carbon Capture Coordination Group, which includes landowners, the companies, and the regulating entities.  The group is focusing on three areas:

Independent economic analysis: The intent is to understand all of the costs, such as developing technologies to capture carbon from different sources, transporting carbon, drilling wells, pumping into the ground, and monitoring.  What is a reasonable expectation for Delta landowners, and what sorts of revenue streams might result from this?  The group has developed a scope of work and is seeking funding for the analysis.

Outreach:  It’s important to have a coordinated outreach strategy and messaging to help the Delta community understand the technology, the potential benefits, and the risks.  “We need local support, and that requires understanding, but even beyond just the Delta, California and even the nation needs to understand these processes.”

Regulatory process: With ten or more agencies possibly regulating carbon capture, there’s an opportunity to streamline and coordinate permitting.

DR. GEORGE PERIDAS: CO2 Storage in the Delta

Dr. Peridas began his presentation by noting that California has set the goal to be carbon neutral by 2045 or earlier, but to meet this goal, we’re going to have to do a lot more than what we’re already doing:  renewable energy, solar panels, wind turbines, electrification of vehicles, and more efficient buildings.

We have to redouble and intensify efforts in the areas that we have championed, but we’re going to have to do even more,” said Dr. Peridas.  “We’re going to have to capture CO2 from existing large point sources, but we’re also going to have to remove CO from the atmosphere.”

There are several ways of doing that:  Some involve machines, and some involve using agricultural or industrial waste.  The fuel reduction projects that are taking place in our forests to reduce wildfire risk can also be turned into carbon-negative fuels that displace fossil fuels.

The reason that we need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is we’re going to we’re going to have residual emissions,” he said.  “We’re going to have agriculture; it’s hard to mitigate. Wildfires, cattle farming, and applications like aviation do not lend themselves to being electrified readily.  Heavy trucking, cement production – these are applications that you cannot readily eliminate or have carbon-free substitutes for.”

Now, this is not a Get Out of Jail Free card to not do other types of climate mitigation, but we are going to have to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  Where does that CO2 go?  It has to go back where it came from, and that’s underground.”

The CO2 would be injected very deep – at least a mile deep if not more; primary injection targets would be 6-10,000 feet deep. The type of rock that CO2 can be injected into is much like desert sandstone; the CO2 is stored in the microscopic pore spaces between the grains that make up these rocks. 

Many processes trap the CO2 in the rock, consolidate its location, and don’t let it move or escape, said Dr. Peridas. 

Nature has trapped fluids, in some cases for up to hundreds of millions of years, which is thousands of times longer than humans have been on the planet. So the reason that we have brines, oil, and gas underground that we have been extracting is because nature has trapped these fluids for millions to hundreds of millions of years. So even though we only recently thought of it as a climate mitigation effort, it’s a natural process that has been happening for a while.”

Numerous projects are in operation or under development worldwide, including projects in Asia, North America, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East.  The map shows the location of projects, with the size of each circle representing the scale of the project; the empty circle on the bottom left indicates 1 million tons being stored per year.   The color represents the stage of development.

This is not ubiquitous by any means, but it’s also not experimental,” said Dr. Peridas.  “It’s been happening for decades in some cases.”

The geology in the Delta and the Central Valley is uniquely suitable for storing CO2.  The map on the left shows the pronounced sedimentary Central Valley basin bounded by all kinds of more ‘funky stuff,’ geologically speaking.  The map on the right by the US Geological Survey shows the depth to basement rock; blue is shallow, and pink is deep.  The Central Valley really stands out from a geological standpoint as it’s several 1000 feet deep.

These are the same processes geologically that gave rise to this amazing, unique ecosystem of the Delta have also created sedimentary basins; the runoff from the mountains from the Sierra has carried with it sediments over millions of years that are very deep and relatively young; this means less consolidated, with a lot of space to store CO2. Moving towards the Rockies, things get older and certainly more complex in some cases.

So from a geological standpoint, the Central Valley is a unique gift for doing something about combating climates change,” said Dr. Peridas.  “For the Delta itself, we zoomed in and did some focused research on the Delta.  It really is a tremendous resource to store CO2 – probably many, many decades’ worth of CO2 in terms of California’s climate emissions. That’s both a challenge as it has to be managed responsibly, but it’s also an opportunity to serve many causes at once both local and community needs and development, and also the state’s climate goals.”

The slide shows a cross-section of the Delta, which is typically called a layer cake geology setting.  The yellow layers are sandstones, the types of rocks with pore space to accommodate theCO2.  The gray areas are impermeable rocks that help trap CO2 and limit its movements, typically, things like shales. The slanted line on the left is the Midland fault, so there is a depth offset there.

This cross-section of the Sacramento basin lays out a situation that many other states would drool over,” said Dr. Peridas.  “From a geological standpoint, it really is textbook geology to safely and permanently put CO2 away deep underground.”

In terms of infrastructure, he said not much is needed.  A single well can inject a million tons of CO2, which is quite a bit; California’s entire emissions these days, not including wildfires, are in the mid 400 million tons per year region.

So a single well can do a lot in good geology,” said Dr. Peridas.  “The Delta does have that geology.”

The footprint is small and very similar to existing gas wells in the Delta.  The photo on the top right is an old gas well in the vicinity of Bouldin Island; the bottom two photos show you injection wells from other geologic storage projects; one is in Illinois and the other in Saskatchewan.  Driving around the Delta, there are tens or even hundreds of gas wells; they are not contemplating adding anywhere near that many. 

You would only need one or two injection wells per project,” he said.  “So really, the surface footprint is minimal, and it doesn’t compete with any ongoing agricultural conservation or other surface objectives or activities.

Since not much is known about this technology, researchers have done some studies to figure out what the public knows and what their attitudes are.  So they commissioned research from FM3 about public attitudes in the Delta and Kern County.  This consisted of 30 in-depth interviews, an hour or longer, talking about priorities of local stakeholders, such as elected officials, landowners, agriculture, conservation and grassroots environmental groups, business, labor, academia, and regulatory agencies; and about 650 quantitative interviews with registered voters. 

Dr. Peridas briefly summarized the findings, noting that the full results are available on a YouTube recording.  “The high-level conclusions are that the voters in the Delta are largely unfamiliar with the concept of geologic carbon storage. However, once they’re presented with more information about what it is and how it works, they have generally positive but cautious reactions.  Their ambivalence is driven by the fact that this is likely the first time they hear about this; this is not an idea circulated before that people are aware of.  Now that’s changing as there are significant revenue streams for this and potential revenues to landowners. As a result, project developers are looking to develop projects in the region and approaching landowners.”

Voters saw projects close to home as less appealing than projects further away,” he continued.  “So there is trepidation about having these projects in one’s own vicinity. People expressed pretty uniformly a desire to have extensive regulation and public inputs for these projects, but also a desire to see permanent jobs flow as a result of these projects.”

In terms of who are the believable or trusted messengers to deliver information on the technology, among the most trusted were farming and ranching families, doctors and nurses, firefighters and research institutions. On the least trusted side of the spectrum, you have the project developers themselves, industry, and, although I hate to admit it, it is a result nonetheless – state government.”

TOM ZUCKERMAN, A Delta landowner perspective

Tom Zuckerman, a Delta landowner, began by noting he’s a relative newcomer to the subject, but he has been working with Dr. Peridas, Campbell, and others for about two years.  He sees it as a huge emerging opportunity of the Delta.  Not only does the Delta appear to have a large capacity to store CO2, but there are regional emissions with the oil and gas facilities that are concentrated in the north Contra Costa shore.  There are transportation opportunities through the port of Stockton as well.

One of the things that we’re all concerned about in the Delta is sea level rise,” said Mr. Zuckerman.  “Sea level rise is a product of global warming. Global warming is a product of greenhouse gas emissions, and to have an opportunity here directly to not only improve the world’s health in some fashion but also to contribute to the stopping of global warming and sea level rise is going to be especially important to those of us who are worried about preserving the Delta for agriculture, for recreation, and its environment.”

We’re supporting the idea of sharing on an equitable basis of whatever revenue streams might occur for the storage so that a fund could be created to help maintain levees, to provide public access, and to enhance environmental circumstances in the Delta, so it would be a win-win-win situation for everybody.”

Mr. Zuckerman pointed out that there is a history of coordination in the Delta through Reclamation districts, where the landowners of individual islands have cooperated historically for levee building, drainage, and other things. So it’s a head start on getting cooperation amongst various landowners across the region affected by individual projects.

It’s important to get independent studies done to know what an equitable proportion of the revenue stream that might be available for deep carbon sequestration, how that might best be shared by the landowners, by the state, and by the actual emitters,” he said.

When you talk about moving CO2 from a site where it’s being emitted to where it’s going to be stored, in the Delta, we have an extra opportunity to utilize waterborne transport with modern equipment and so forth, so that is not emmitive. It’s reminiscent of what the ports were trying to do a few years ago with the marine highway thing where they were trying to take truck traffic off the highways in favor of moving containers by barges and so forth. That opportunity applies to most of the areas in the Delta which are readily accessible by barge transport, such as shallow-draft barges.”

JEFF HENDERSON: Concluding remarks

Jeff Henderson, the Council’s Deputy Executive Officer for Planning & Performance, then closed with a summation of environmental justice concerns and relating carbon capture and storage to the Delta Plan.

While these types of projects do enable progress toward achieving greenhouse gas reduction goals, they also have numerous impacts that we need to consider and avoid or mitigate where possible, including potentially prolonging reliance on fossil fuels and continuing or exacerbating existing environmental justice and public health issues that are associated with point source pollution,” he said.

While the scope of our work is still being determined, the impact of these types of projects will likely be considered as an important issue in the council’s ongoing environmental justice issue paper initiative with regard to the Delta Plan, given the geologic potential the delta for this technology, and California’s aggressive emissions reduction goals.”

Several future projects may be proposed in the Delta,” Mr. Henderson continued.  “Many of these may meet the definition of a covered action that would be required to demonstrate consistency with the Delta Plan. The types of factors to consider in the context of the Delta Plan related to these projects could include things like the potential use of pipelines, barges, trucks, or rail to transport carbon to storage sites in the Delta, the potential to extend existing environmental justice and public health impacts, and the potential for agricultural land conversion to support infrastructure required storage sites.”

Given the current understanding of these projects, we anticipate that several would be covered actions that would implicate several Delta land policies that are described further in your staff report. Our staff will continue to engage with the resources agency and other agency partners to understand the details and the impacts of these projects and will advise project proponents regarding the Delta Plan regulations at early points in the development of these projects.”


Councilmember Don Nottoli noted that it will be important, if not imperative, to connect with local governments, special districts, municipalities, counties, state agencies, the Delta Protection Commission, and others so that they are educated and accepting of these types of projects.

Campbell Ingram said that the Coordination Group has reached out to the counties to help them understand the future potential.  “There’s more work to be done in terms of a coordinated outreach strategy to get more to the local communities and cities in the future. So the group is thinking about how best to do that and the best timing to do that, too. So the short answer is that we were cognizant that we’re going to need that kind of awareness, involvement, and participation. And so we’re really focused on that and try to think about the best ways to do that collectively.”

Regarding the worst-case scenario with inducing seismic activity, Council Chair Susan Tatayon said it’s her understanding that the risk is minimal, but has anyone studied the probability of inducing seismic activity in the Delta?  How many of these projects would it take? 1? 5?

Dr. Peridas said that large teams have focused on those for years.  “We have to draw a distinction between causing an earthquake of the magnitude that, for example, the Hayward Fault could cause by itself naturally, which could cause a lot of damage and causing an earthquake which would be felt at the surface, which would raise question marks but wouldn’t necessarily cause any damage.  Now, we think that clearly, the severe scenario is unacceptable, but we think that the other one is unacceptable too, even if you cause a shake that can be felt at the surface that doesn’t do damage. We think that’s avoidable. And it’s a sign that the operators aren’t paying attention; they are not doing the things they should be doing.

There are many people looking into this; there are models that have been built to manage the risk of seismicity. The first thing you do is look at the natural history of the sites; is there any naturally occurring seismicity that would give away the presence of faults that are in danger of slipping if you start increasing the pressure in the subsurface? If you have an area that’s naturally quiet, that’s an indication that’s your risk is lower. On the other hand, if you wanted to inject next to the Hayward or the San Andreas Fault, then, of course, you should not be allowed to do this.”

The other thing is, you look at the vicinity to existing faults in the vicinity to basement,” Dr. Peridas continued.  “So in the cases where people have caused earthquakes from oil and gas extraction, they were dangerously close to basement rock, and the pressures were exceeding what was prudent.  I don’t know whether they were out of compliance. But if I remember correctly, I think that was because there wasn’t a strong enough requirement to watch out for these things.”

Seismicity prevention is built into any permitting and authorization process that the projects would have to go through,” Dr. Peridas continued.  “We also have some evidence from Japan of how the geological layers that contain CO2 and existing CO2 wells behaved after a large natural earthquake. So the Nagaoka earthquake was 6.1 or 6.2 magnitude – pretty large, and there was a CO2 injection well on the site that was examined after the earthquake as well, and they didn’t find any integrity issues. Now, does that mean that nothing could ever go wrong? No, but as these are stacking the odds in your favor, we think that you can stay well clear of the danger of seismicity.”

Councilmember Virginia Madueño ask how does this impact existing projects and the future monitoring of the project?  How do we ensure this in perpetuity?

I see this as something that can be a non-intrusive neighbor,” said Dr. Peridas.  “Because this happens so deep, it doesn’t interfere with any surface or even shallow subsurface activities. So farming, conservation, even soil carbon sequestration – these would not be affected. I’m by no means taking a position on Delta conveyance here, but the activities of that, again, would be much shallower, and the engineering related to that would not interfere with storing CO2 6, 7, 8 – 10,000 feet underground.” 

Where there may be some interference and where endangered species considerations, local considerations may come into is during construction. So at some point, you will have to drill one or two wells; that means that a rig has to come in, and a small area will need to be ring-fenced. If you need to build a docking station somewhere on the channel, then again, it leaves these minor construction projects that I don’t see as different from other activities that may take place.  So we’re not talking about any large intrusion or interference.”

Executive Officer Jessica Pearson further clarified.  How are these projects managed and guaranteed in perpetuity?  What kind of agreements or funding are in place to ensure permanent storage?

The risk profile for a project like this is a bell curve, so it goes up, and then it dips again,” said Dr. Peridas.  “The point of most interest is right when you stop injecting; that’s when your risk is highest. That’s when your pressure is highest – at the peak of putting CO2 underground after you stop. Then, gradually that pressure dissipates, and the risk gradually tails off.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that it drops to zero straightaway,” Dr. Peridas continued.  “As a result of that, EPA and the Air Resources Board have placed different but compatible requirements on projects. For example, EPA requires you to monitor the CO2 for at least 50 years after you stop injecting; CARB requires you to monitor it for 100 years after you stop injecting. In addition to that, you have to have a site decommissioning plan when you submit an application to get your permit; you have to say what you’re going to do after the project is over to plugin, abandon the wells, cement them, and remove any other infrastructure. You need to have an emergency and remedial response plan, and you also need to have financial assurance in place.  Both agencies have financial assurance requirements. So that means there are different financial instruments that you can use. But the gist of them is that you need to show that either you have the capability or set a pool of money aside to deal with things that may come up. And you’re on the hook for performing these tasks for a number of years.”

During the public comment period, Matt Holmes, representing South Stockton and Little Manila rising, said they have concerns about this strategy.  “We’re not Puritans about it. We’re not going to read the label on the fire extinguisher; we’re going to put out the fire on our house.  So if this is the only strategy to protect our community, we’ll reach for it.

Mr. Holmes said their concerned about what could go wrong.  “What’s a slow leak look like? What’s a slow leak of supercritical CO2 that freezes the soil above it, distributes and disperses throughout the Delta, and spikes the pH of this estuary?  Spiking the pH of the estuary would be a crime that would be unrepairable for eons. So I haven’t seen the modeling that I need to see on that. And I don’t think anybody can make an informed choice about this topic without seeing that worst-case modeling done.”

As to what the Council can do, Mr. Holmes said he’d like the Council to break down the silos between the California Air Resources Board and the Natural Resources Agency.  “We sit on the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee for the scoping plan, that’s going to pony up $240 per tonne. Let’s be perfectly clear; that’s the only reason anybody’s looking at this.  The state of California is removing the risk from exploring this unproven technology. I’d rather give Campbell $240 per square foot to restore the whole Delta and fill it with the proven biological solutions that stabilize this planet for eons before we jump to a clever engineering solution.  I think this has a lot of traction because folks at CARB are engineers, and they know how to write down numbers on paper, and they know how to show reductions.  I have to tell you, they haven’t been really good at following up on those reductions and enforcing them in the rest of their portfolio of policy.”

Osha Meserve with Local Agencies of the North Delta said her biggest concern is how the carbon dioxide would be transported to whatever locations that store it.  With the roads and bridges the way they are, and the community, coming by truck is a non-starter; I think barges are a non-starter, because of the emissions. What’s the net benefit if you’re burning fossil fuels to move carbon dioxide to a different location that’s supposedly helping by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I’m sure that folks are looking at that net benefit issue, but I think a pipeline or that kind of thing is really the only way this could work in this area. And I definitely want to see the local benefits be part of it.”

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