Scientists plan to pump 1 million tons of greenhouse gas more than a mile beneath a Kern County power plant in one of the nation’s largest experiments to slow global warming.

The power plant’s exhaust will go directly into a 7,000-foot-deep well. No climate-warming carbon dioxide or anything else will get into the air. There won’t be a smokestack.

It’s a “double positive” because it will prevent the release of both greenhouse gas and ozone-making pollution, said James Boyd, vice chairman of the California Energy Commission, which is leading the experiment.

“This is extremely relevant in the San Joaquin Valley, where air quality is such a big issue,” he said.

The four-year experiment, scheduled to begin in 2011, received a $65 million Department of Energy grant last week. Federal officials have funded a half-dozen such efforts nationally to capture carbon dioxide and trap it below ground.

The Kern project, 18 miles north of Bakersfield, attracted federal money partly because it involves a power plant that uses aerospace technology to produce electricity and very little air pollution. The power plant is privately owned by Clean Energy Systems Inc. of Rancho Cordova.

But geology is the main reason to pour money into this project. Nature has demonstrated over millions of years that oil and natural gas stay put in the rock formations below the Valley floor.

Scientists say the same would be true for carbon dioxide, or CO2. The experiment is meant to confirm their belief.

No danger is anticipated, scientists say. CO2 does not burn or explode. But a large leak in high concentrations could asphyxiate a human and kill surrounding plants.

There is little chance of that happening in Kern, said earth scientist Larry Myer of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, technical director of the project.

“We can easily inject the CO2, and it won’t go anywhere, even in an earthquake,” he said. “Mother Nature has kept oil and natural gas from leaking out in these kinds of rocks for a long, long time.”

Still, why spend $65 million to entomb carbon dioxide in rock? The gas is necessary for life. People exhale it in every breath. Plants absorb it, make energy from the sun and create oxygen that people breathe.

But scientists say carbon dioxide is building up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and it naturally holds heat in the air, raising global temperatures.

The gas comes from many natural sources, such as volcanoes. But human-related sources such as power plants and vehicles also are dumping a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, accelerating the warm-up, scientists say.

They fear temperatures will rise quickly worldwide over the next century, melting polar ice caps and causing extended droughts, wildfires and other calamities.

As a way to slow warming, carbon dioxide can be injected in vast rock formations below the ocean and the continents.

Norway has been injecting carbon dioxide into formations beneath the Norwegian Sea for many years. The energy corporation BP has been injecting CO2 into the ground in Algeria as crews remove natural gas.

Now, the United States is experimenting with similar projects that are identified through several government-industry coalitions. The West Coast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership explores projects in this region.

The partnership identified the Valley as a place where carbon dioxide can be pumped into ancient sandstone. Scientists say plumes of compressed carbon dioxide can spread into the sandstone.

Earth scientist Myer says solid shale formations above the sandstone create an impenetrable cap to keep the carbon dioxide from leaking.

There is a chilling example of carbon dioxide venting at volcanic Mammoth Mountain in the eastern Sierra. The volcano leaked enough carbon dioxide during the 1990s to kill a swath of forest.

An unsuspecting ranger in the area was overcome one day as he entered a remote shack at Mammoth Mountain. He nearly died.

But the active volcanics in the eastern Sierra are different from the deep rock formations that have trapped gases beneath the Valley for many thousands of years, Myer said.

“Once CO2 is trapped in those rocks, it’s trapped,” he said.

Drilling a 7,000-foot hole for the project would not be unusual in Kern County. In the 1980s, an oil company drilled a well more than 22,000 feet at Elk Hills.

Injecting steam or gas into oil fields is a well-established process, too.

Oil companies for decades have injected steam to heat up thick oil deposits so they can be more easily pumped out.

The power plant involved in the experiment is uncommon, according to Clean Energy Systems.

“It’s the cleanest fossil fuel plant in the world right now,” said Keith Pronske, president and chief executive officer.

The company has worked for 15 years to develop power production using engineering from the space shuttle, which combines hydrogen and oxygen for fuel.

Instead of hydrogen, the Kern County plant uses various kinds of natural gas along with pure oxygen, burning it at high temperatures.

The air-quality advantage is that the exhaust is mostly water and carbon dioxide, though there is also carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen, or NOx, a key gas in ozone. Conventional natural gas power plants can produce 10 times more NOx than the technology in the Kern plant.

The aerospace technology would be a significant advance because the Valley’s ozone problem is among the worst in the nation. Officials at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District like the project, even though it puts out more carbon monoxide than other similar-sized power plants.

“Overall, it is a very good project for the Valley’s air,” said district executive director Seyed Sadredin. “The Valley has more of a tolerance for carbon monoxide. We have been in attainment for that pollutant since the 1990s.”

At the moment, the Kern plant produces a modest 5 megawatts that are sold on California’s electricity grid. It’s enough for about 5,000 homes. For the experiment, the production will increase to 50 megawatts, which still is considered a small amount of electricity.

But it won’t contribute to global warming or the Valley’s poor air quality, officials said.

“This is a world-class project,” Pronske said. “You don’t see anyone else putting together this technology with CO2 sequestration.”

The reporter can be reached at or(559) 441-6316.