The Big Business of Burying Carbon

Applicants for EPA carbon storage permits must persuade the agency that they can contain both the injected carbon dioxide plume and a secondary saltwater plume that CO2 it moves out of the rock, what drilling engineers call pressure pulses. EPA requires evidence that no plume will contaminate drinking water while a project is in operation and for a predetermined period of 50 years after the CO2 the injection stops, but the agency can decide to shorten or extend it for a particular project.

Stream is employing a wealthy team, including oil industry veterans and a former EPA official, to handle the permit application, which was filed in October 2020 and remains, nearly two years later, under agency review. Within his company, Stream named the carbon storage project Project Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom (and sometimes war).

Leading the technical work is a British petroleum geologist named Peter Jackson, who used to work at BP. His team planned Project Minerva in the same way that Meckel’s UT group had mapped the Gulf Coast. Using well-recorded and 3D seismic data, scientists modeled the Frio beneath several tens of thousands of acres in and around Gray Ranch. They then simulated how the carbon dioxide plume and pressure pulse would behave, depending on where they drilled the wells and how they operated them.

In their computer models, the resulting plume movements appeared as multicolored blobs on rocky blue backgrounds. The best spots were round, a cohesive shape that suggests the plume will be easier to control. In other points, the CO2 he would not behave: Sometimes he escaped upwards; other times it spread out like a pancake or, Jackson recalls, “like a spider.” Either way, the team worried, could degrade the project’s safety and set off alarms at the EPA. The simulations led the Stream team to choose 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 at Lake Charles in his decked-out black Chevy Tahoe and we head west into Texas until we’re several miles from the state line. We exit the highway in the town of Vinton, Louisiana and arrive at Gray Ranch. Turn right onto Gray Road. We turn left onto Ged Road. Then, next to the cowboy boot-shaped Lake Ged, we mount a subtle climb known as Vinton Dome.

One of Gray Ranch’s many peacocks rests on a fence.

Photography: Katie Thompson

A white house sits atop Vinton Dome overlooking Gray Ranch.

Photography: Katie Thompson

These are iconic names in the history of the Stream family. As early as the 1880s, a local land surveyor named John Geddings Gray, “Ged,” began riding this acreage for timber and cattle. Four years after the gusher at Spindletop, Ged saw a topographically similar prospect at Vinton Dome, and bought it as well. He opened up the area for drilling and his hunch paid off.

Portrait of John Geddings Gray.

Photography: Katie Thompson

Today, the top of Vinton Dome offers a panoramic view of part of the Empire Stream. To the right are the barns with the family cattle mark and quarter horse mark. All around, rusty pump jacks rise and fall, drawing oil and gas. Stream, Ged Gray’s great-grandson, compares the ranch to the cuts of beef he grills for his three young sons, who think it’s the best steakhouse out there. “It’s just because I just bought the prime steak,” he says. There is one rule: “Don’t hurt yourself.”

We stop at one of the expected places in the well. The surrounding area is resplendent with wire grass, bluestem and fennel. It is frequented by three types of heron: cattle, great and snowy. Being Louisiana, it is also emblazoned with a line of yellow sticks; 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 strange that this ranch, which for a century has served fossil fuels, could play an influential role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is also instructive: a measure of how economic signals are changing in one part of the world a long time ago. adapted the way it exploits its natural resources to meet changing market demand. “Ultimately, people will have to endure” to deal with climate change, says Stream. “They can’t just talk about it.”

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