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 rock moves, what drilling engineers call the pressure pulse. The EPA requires evidence that no plumes will contaminate drinking water while a project is underway and for a default period of 50 years after CO2 the injection stops, but the agency can decide to shorten or lengthen this for a particular project.
Stream employs a well-heeled team, including oil industry veterans and a former top EPA official, to guide the permit application, which was submitted in October 2020 and remains, nearly two years later, under review by the agency. Within his company, Stream nicknamed the carbon storage room Project Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom (and sometimes war).
Leading the technical work is a British oil geologist by the name of Peter Jackson, who previously worked at BP. His team planned Project Minerva the same way Meckel’s UT group had mapped the Gulf Coast. Using well logs and 3D seismic data, scientists modeled the Frio under several tens of thousands of acres on and around Gray Ranch. Then they simulated the behavior of the carbon dioxide plume and the pressure pulse, depending on where they drilled wells and how they operated them.
In their computer models, the resulting plume movements appeared as multicolored drops on blue rocky backgrounds. The best blobs were round, a consistent shape that suggests the plume will be easier to control. In other places, the CO2 would not behave: sometimes it escaped upwards; other times it spread like a pancake or, Jackson recalled, “like a spider”. Both forms, the team worries, could downgrade the project’s safety and set off alarm bells 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 from Lake Charles in his decked out black Chevy Tahoe, and we head west toward Texas until we’re several miles from the state line. We leave the highway at the town of Vinton, Louisiana, and arrive at Gray Ranch. We turn right onto Gray Road. We turn left onto Ged Road. Next, beside the cowboy boot-shaped Lake Ged, we ascend a subtle climb known as Vinton Dome.
These are iconic names in the Stream family tradition. As early as the 1880s, a local surveyor named John Geddings Gray—“Ged”—began to put together this acreage to profit from timber and livestock. Four years after Spindletop sprang up, Ged saw a topographically similar prospect in the Vinton Dome, and he bought it too. He opened the area for drilling and his intuition paid off.
Today, the top of the Vinton Dome offers a panorama of part of the Stream empire. To the right are barns bearing the family cattle mark and quarter horse mark. All around, rusty pump jacks move up and down, pulling oil and gas. Stream, Ged Gray’s great-great-grandson, compares the ranch to the cuts of beef he grills for his three young children, who think he’s the best steak cooker around. “It’s only because I only buy the prime fillet,” he says. There is only one rule: “Make no mistake.”
We stop at one of the expected well sites. The area around it is resplendent with wire grass, bluestem and fennel. It is frequented by three kinds of egrets: bovine, large and snowy. This being Louisiana, it is also stamped with a line of yellow posts; 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 the evolution of signals economics in a part of the world that has long adapted the way it exploits its natural resources to meet changing market demands. “People are eventually going to have to step up” to fight climate change, Stream says. “They can’t just talk about it.”