The Earth passed a new threshold this week — an observatory in Hawaii clocked the highest levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in human history. A number of studies say CO2 is part of what’s driving higher temperatures, drought and longer fire seasons in the West. Now ranchers in Montana are testing out a new program that’s trying to put some of that carbon back in the ground.
North of Big Timber, Montana, clouds drift from the snow-capped Crazy Mountains to the expansive green pastures of Indreland Ranch. Roger and Betsy Indreland walk through the grass to check on their cattle.
Roger is one of the board members of Western Sustainability Exchange (WSE) based out of Livingston. It’s an organization that supports conservation agriculture and ranching.
“If we can preserve these landscapes so that this open space is maintained, that’s kind of the ultimate objective so that we don’t go broke and sell-out and subdivide. To put it harshly. The objective is to put ourselves at a level where we’re sustainable,” says Roger.
Most ranchers operate on a thin profit margin, and climate change is making it even harder. The state’s temperature increase over the last six decades outpaces the national average according to the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment. Drier, hotter summers could mean less grass and water for cattle and higher costs for ranchers.
This summer, the Indrelands are hoping to stand up a new revenue stream on their more than 4,000-acre ranch: carbon storage. WSE’s Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative pays farmers and ranchers to adopt conservation practices that pull carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air and store it in the soil.
The Indrelands are one of the first four ranches in the state to sign 30-year contracts with NativeEnergy. It’s a non-profit organization that sells carbon credits to companies like ebay and Clif Bar to offset their carbon emissions. The ranchers get some upfront money to invest in new fencing, watering structures or training, and they receive payments from NativeEnergy based on how much carbon they are able to store.
Lill Erickson, executive director of WSE, did not disclose how much the ranchers can make with this program or how much carbon will be stored.
“We are working with ranchers to use what we term regenerative agriculture practices that create really healthy soil, first and foremost. That soil then creates healthy vegetation,” says Erickson.
Plants need carbon dioxide like humans need oxygen. They pull it out of the air and use it to grow and reproduce. A bigger, more robust plant with deep roots can pull in more and store carbon deeper in the ground.
But if livestock over-graze, the plants’ roots remain shallow and more of the carbon can be released back into the air as carbon dioxide. Erickson says this is pretty common on a lot of ranches.
“Many ranchers use what’s called season-long grazing where they take their cattle to the summer grazing pastures, and they turn them out and of course they check on them to make sure they’re alright," says Erickson. "But the cattle generally graze the entire pasture for as long as the summer season.”
With a ‘regenerative’ agriculture approach, ranchers use electric fencing or range riders to keep the herds bunched and moving quickly across a landscape. Erickson says this prevents overgrazing and allows the plant roots to grow deeper into the soil. She adds this helps improve soil nutrients and its ability to retain moisture.
Betsy Indreland says they are always trying to find ways to improve the sustainability of their ranch.
“Economically, it gives us a little boost to help do the projects we need to do so that we can do more of it. But the grazing practices, we had been doing some of those, but this will enable us to expand that,” says Betsy.
WSE's goal is to have around 200,000 acres under contract by 2020, up from 34,000 acres now. It’s collecting soil cores from 165 sites across the state this summer to compare how historical grazing practices on the land correlate with the amount of carbon in the soil. With this information, they’ll be able to create a model to predict the amount of carbon potential for ranchers interested in joining the program.
Paul Stoy is an associate professor at Montana State University. He studies the exchange of carbon, water and energy between the land surface and the atmosphere.
“It’s easy to put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by a lot of burning or tillage or by land clearing or degradation,” says Stoy.
But he says it’s a lot harder to put it back into the ground. He says improving soil health is best at slowing down the release of carbon already there and less likely to significantly lower the amount of CO2 in the air.
“There’s a number of recent studies arguing that that’s not going to be enough to change the trajectory of temperature change that we’re on right now,” says Stoy.
Stoy is part of a research team testing another carbon capture technique — the feasibility of a bio-energy with carbon capture and storage system. Basically, perennial plants like grasses and trees would be used as fuel to produce energy, and the carbon dioxide emissions would be captured and then pumped underground to convert back into mineral deposits.
“So the system is an energy-producing system that is what we call carbon negative," says Stoy. "It is taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into long-term sequestration facilities.”
These carbon capture and storage projects are popping up at a moment of reckoning for one of the biggest carbon emitters. Coal production has seen a sharp decline as utilities increasingly switch to less carbon intensive energy sources like natural gas, sunlight and wind.
As lawmakers in big coal states like Montana and Wyoming try to maintain or even grow their coal industries, they’re also looking for ways to reverse climate change. Earlier this month, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon praised researchers from the University of Wyoming and industry partners for investigating the feasibility of large-scale carbon dioxide capture and storage.
University of Wyoming’s Scott Quillinan is the director of research at the School of Energy Resources. He says the idea is that coal fired plants could capture the carbon dioxide exhaust, condense it into liquid and pump it deep into a storage site underground.
“We are the largest coal producing state," says Quillinan. "It’s quite obvious now that the electricity customers are concerned and care about carbon dioxide emissions. So in order to meet future demand with coal, coal has to figure out how to be carbon competitive. It also has a challenge of being cost competitive since there’s so much cheap natural gas available now.”
Quillinan’s team received almost $10 million last year from the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate whether CO2 could be stored safely and economically in the geological reservoirs at Dry Fork Station near Gillette. This spring they are gathering data on the geological features at the site and checking to make sure it isn’t close to any underground sources of drinking water.
The project is intended to demonstrate over 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide could be stored at this site.