Letter: Using salt caves to store petroleum

(Courtesy photo by Sawtooth Caverns LLC) These tanks are among the aboveground equipment at Sawtooth Caverns, a facility outside Delta, Utah where propane is stored in chambers that were hollowed out in a massive salt dome. Despite concerns about the dome’s seismic integrity, Utah regulators recently greenlighted Sawtooth’s request to store millions of barrels of refined petroleum fuels, such gasoline and diesels. These fuels would be delivered by rail and pipeline from Salt Lake City and West Coast refineries for storage during periods of low demand.

It was more than baffling to read Brian Maffly’s fine article in the Christmas day edition of The Tribune on the engineering of salt caves beneath central Utah lands to create voids for the storage of gasoline and other hydrocarbons piped from Uintah Basin and other Utah locations. Aside from the potential hazards of underground storage of a liquid bomb, what’s puzzling about it is the juxtaposition of this technological stretch, contrasted to the intuitively obvious idea of the salt-gradient solar pond for generation of electricity and heat, a technology studied and developed extensively in Utah universities, particularly Utah State University.

As the world transitions to renewable “green” energy, whether voluntarily or otherwise, projects like relocating carbon-intensive fuels from hundreds of miles away and storing them in dedicated underground caverns is what we used to call “gonzo.” This is especially true when salt-gradient solar ponds (SGSPs) could be created at the location of these massive salt deposits on a truly grand scale, allowing conversion of solar heat captured in these ponds to electricity that would be inexpensive and dependable in the extreme. If avoidance of fossil fuels is a value to be pursued and developed, SGSPs constitute an obvious opportunity.

Even Luddites like myself have shelves of papers and studies on salt-gradient solar ponds prepared by mechanical engineering specialists at USU, Weber State University and the University of Utah, supplemented by astonishing expositions of applied solar energy production at places like El Paso, Texas, the Israeli side of the Dead Sea, and even in Tibet and inner China. Give it an internet search, and you’ll see the presentations come tumbling out — but they only work if you assign value to climate change prevention, as opposed to the assigning of indifference to that function. Utah has exercised indifference to domestic genius for half a century, so we’ll not be surprised to see goofy projects like the “Sawtooth Caverns” near Delta receive official support for what amounts to a very reprehensible, dumb alternative, motivated by the universal lubricant, short-term money.

Ivan Weber, Salt Lake City

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