Giant gas caverns hold environment and fiscal promise

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WEST DESERT -- Imagine gigantic, man-made caverns, each of them the size of the Empire State Building. Four such caves are on the verge of becoming a reality in Utah, and they could save money on your gas bill.

The location is about a mile from the Intermountain power plant. Under the West Desert a vast salt deposit was discovered almost 4,000 feet down. Magnum Development plans to make underground caverns to store natural gas on a mind-boggling scale.

Tiffany James, director of environmental services with Magnum Development, said, "It's going to put the state of Utah at the cutting edge of green energy."

The four giant caverns will be north of Delta in Millard County, under state school trust land. Trust lands administrators expect to collect rentals and fees for years.

Trust Lands assistant director John Andrews said, "So we estimate that this will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for that school trust."

Magnum will use a technique called solution mining. They drill wells thousands of feet down into the salt and inject water.

"And then we circulate water over and over and over again," James said.

Andrews explained, "It dissolves the salt, and then the water is brought out of the well and put into an evaporation pond on the site."

Utah's caverns will connect to a natural gas pipeline network. Similar storage caverns exist in the east; these will be the first in the west.

"Each of these caverns will be the size, roughly, of the Empire State building," Andrews said.

Government agencies have tentatively given the go-ahead to the Magnum project, pending a public comment period. So far, no opposition has emerged.

Mark Clemens, the manager of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, said, "The Sierra Club is supportive in principle because the Magnum gas storage project could be one of the steps that leads us away from excessive greenhouse gas emissions."

The hope is that storage will allow more efficient distribution of gas, possibly making it cheaper.

James said it "can supply enough gas for 500,000 homes in a year."

The relatively clean gas would be readily available to supplement solar and wind energy when they can't keep up with demand. It's a green benefit from the salty basement of the west desert.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is accepting public comment on the proposal until Dec 23rd. If permits are issued, construction could begin early next year.


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John Hollenhorst


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