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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Can We Fix Climate Change by Pumping More Oil?

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 9, 2018

At the Petra Nova power plant in Texas, carbon capture technology reduces CO2 emissions from one of four coal-fired units

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

At first glance, it sounds like something cooked up after too many martinis by a K Street lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry: Take legislation making it more profitable for oil companies to pump oil, and easier for coal-fired power plants to continue to operate — and then sell it as a climate change remedy. Calling it “counterintuitive” might sound like an understatement.

In fact, though, the proposal became law in February, as a little-noticed — but remarkably bipartisan — piece of the deal to pass a budget and reopen the United States government. Among the leading sponsors was Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, rated 0 percent in 2017 by the League of Conservation Voters­­­­­.  But joining her was Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, with a 100 percent rating.

Environmental groups backing the initiative, which substantially increases tax credits for projects that capture carbon emissions, included the Clean Air Task Forceand the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, among others. “In terms of reducing emissions, it’s probably the most consequential energy and climate legislation in a generation,” said Brad Crabtree of the Great Plains Institute, a nonprofit focused on decarbonizing the power industry.

But other environmentalists argued that one provision of the new law — promoting use of captured carbon dioxide for “enhanced oil recovery” — would serve, as Greenpeace put it, “to promote oil supply and keep us hooked on fossil fuels.” The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which actively supported the legislation up to the final buzzer, acknowledged that projects encouraged by the new incentives will cut carbon pollution and create jobs.  But ultimately the NRDC backed away from the bill, with staffers David Doniger and Danielle Droitsch saying in a blog post,“We don’t support subsidies for fossil fuel production, including subsidies for enhanced oil recovery” when the urgent need is “to reduce our dependence on those fuels.”

The new law boosts tax credits for projects that capture carbon emissions and store them by any of three means:

  • Pumping them into geological formations deep underground, with the tax credit gradually rising over 10 years to $50 a ton, up from $20 under existing law. The new law extends eligibility for this tax credit to smaller facilities, potentially making carbon capture and storage by industrial manufacturers more attractive.
  • Use of captured emissions to manufacture other products, including chemicals, concrete, and algae-based biofuels, with a tax credit of $35 per ton of emissions removed from the atmosphere (minus the tonnage released over the lifecycle of the product). It’s a category not previously eligible for any tax credit.
  • Enhanced oil recovery (or EOR), with captured carbon dioxide emissions pumped into depleted oil wells to recover “stranded oil” not accessible by conventional means. The captured emissions then get sequestered underground, for a tax credit of $35 a ton — more than triple the old $10 credit. The Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and other groups objected that this provision amounts to “the single biggest subsidy to the fossil fuel industry in the United States,” with a price tag they estimated at $2.8 billion a year. But environmental backers countered that a barrel of oil produced in this fashion is responsible for 37 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions — after factoring in the emissions sequestered in the production process —than a barrel produced by conventional means. It also uses existing wells instead of pushing companies to drill new ones.

Carbon capture and storage (or CCS) technology has been around for decades. But it has recently attracted increasing support from industry, some environmentalists, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a tool for reducing emissions during the critical transition away from fossil fuels over the next few decades. Worldwide, 17 large-scale CCS facilities are now in operation, mainly at natural gas processing plants, but also at factories producing hydrogen, ethanol, fertilizer, and steel. Another 20 are in various stages of development or construction. In one major setback for carbon capture, the utility Southern Company last year walked away from a costly CCS-based attempt to make “clean coal” a reality at a power plant in Mississippi. (It decided to continue burning natural gas.)

Several companies, along with university research laboratories, are developing technologies to capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. A Canadian company, Carbon Engineering, is now operating a pilot plant using the captured carbon to manufacture a liquid fuel that it says could eventually become price-competitive under California and British Columbia’s low-carbon fuel standards. (The new U.S. legislation also makes carbon capture from the atmosphere eligible for tax credits for the first time.)

Last year, the U.S. utility NRG partnered with JX Nippon, a Japanese oil and gas company, to open a carbon capture facility at the W.A. Parish power plant outside Houston. It now captures 5,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a day, representing up to 90 percent of the emissions from one of the plant’s four coal-fired units. Also in the Houston area, NetPower, a startup, uses a different carbon capture and storage technology — again combined with enhanced oil recovery — to remove all of the emissions from a new natural gas-powered generating plant.

High cost has always been the main obstacle to wider deployment of carbon capture and storage technology.  The only way to amortize that expense has been to make a buck on the captured carbon — typically through enhanced oil recovery.  The new NRG facility, for instance, cost $1 billion, including $190 million in federal support. The recovered emissions get piped 80 miles and pumped underground at the West Ranch oil field to drive the production of about 5,000 barrels of oil a day, up from 300 barrels by conventional means. But even that income hasn’t added up, according to NRG spokesman David Knox. In 2014, when the price of oil topped $110 a barrel, the carbon-capture facility would have been “basically printing money,” he said.  But at the current price of $60 to $65 a barrel for West Texas crude, “it’s just paying for itself,” and NRG has no plans to try it again any time soon.

Proponents argue that the new federal incentives will help to close that gap and kick-start carbon capture and storage as existing federal and state incentives have done for renewable energy. “ said Bob Perciasepe, a deputy administrator of the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency and now president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Tax incentives, he added, enabled “even the wind industry to drop the cost to the point where it can now almost compete straight up” with conventional power sources.  Developing cheaper carbon capture and storage technologies will be particularly critical, he said, as India, China, and sub-Saharan Africa continue to build new coal-fired power plants.

Apart from cost, one potential caveat with carbon capture is uncertainty about whether underground storage will be permanent.  Greenpeace has argued that carbon dioxide emissions injected underground for enhanced oil recovery come “back up the well with the oil.” But Kurt Waltzer of the Clean Air Task Force notes that the new law requires monitoring and verification to ensure that that doesn’t happen.  Greenpeace has also argued that carbon emissions stored in the saline aquifer formations considered ideal for permanent sequestration “could uncontrollably make its way back to the surface.”

But the 2015 MIT study it cites as evidence doesn’t make that case.  In place of conventional thinking that exposure to saline turns all of the injected carbon dioxide into rock, the co-authors merely argue that mineralization may occur only at the interface between the two materials, trapping the rest of the carbon dioxide in a “carbon-encrusted bubble.”  The  co-authors have since published an update calling “the ultimate fate” of sequestered emissions “an unresolved question that is not addressed in our paper.”

“We have stored about 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in subsurface formations in the United States since the 1970s,” said Crabtree of the Great Plains Institute, with “very few incidents of any leakage whatsoever. We have decades of experience and a tremendous track record in terms of oil and gas formations, and the federal regulations for saline formations are more stringent, recognizing that less is known.

“If you care about climate,” Crabtree added, “you can’t pick and choose the science and the technical facts that you work with. It can be very frustrating to see a lot of attention being devoted to the risks of storing carbon dioxide in the subsurface, when the great risk that we have to focus on is what’s happening with carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.” Opposition to the new tax incentives came not just from environmentalists, he noted, but also from people in industry “who see carbon capture and storage as basically ceding a climate agenda to the left. You had diametrically opposed camps opposing the same legislation for opposite reasons.”

That makes passage of the new incentives a triumph — and a necessary one if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change, according to Waltzer. The scientific consensus is that “we need to zero out” emissions from the global electricity system by mid-century “and then begin to have negative emissions,” meaning more carbon dioxide being taken out of the atmosphere than we put into it.

“That’s a heckuva challenge,” said Waltzer, “and having carbon capture infrastructure will be crucial” to making it happen.


Richard Conniff is the author of “The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth,” and other books.


One Response to “Can We Fix Climate Change by Pumping More Oil?”

  1. UPDATE June 7 2018 Press release from Cell Press:

    Someday, the gasoline you buy might trace its heritage to carbon dioxide pulled straight out of the sky rather than from oil pumped out of the ground. By removing emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into fresh fuels, engineers at a Canadian firm have demonstrated a scalable and cost-effective way to make deep cuts in the carbon footprint of transportation with minimal disruption to existing vehicles. Their work appears June 7 in the journal Joule.

    “The carbon dioxide generated via direct air capture can be combined with sequestration for carbon removal, or it can enable the production of carbon-neutral hydrocarbons, which is a way to take low-cost carbon-free power sources like solar or wind and channel them into fuels that can be used to decarbonize the transportation sector,” says lead author David Keith, founder and chief scientist of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian CO2-capture and clean fuels enterprise, and a professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard University.

    Direct air capture technology works almost exactly like it sounds. Giant fans draw ambient air into contact with an aqueous solution that picks out and traps carbon dioxide. Through heating and a handful of familiar chemical reactions, that same carbon dioxide is re-extracted and ready for further use — as a carbon source for making valuable chemicals like fuels, or for storage via a sequestration strategy of choice. It’s not just theory — Carbon Engineering’s facility in British Columbia is already achieving both CO2 capture and fuel generation.

    The idea of direct air capture is hardly new, but the successful implementation of a scalable and cost-effective working pilot plant is. After conducting a full process analysis and crunching the numbers, Keith and his colleagues claim that realizing direct air capture on an impactful scale will cost roughly $94-$232 per ton of carbon dioxide captured, which is on the low end of estimates that have ranged up to $1,000 per ton in theoretical analyses.

    That price-point is low enough to use direct air capture to start tackling the roughly 20% of global carbon emissions that result from driving, flying, trucking, and other ways of getting people and goods around. “Electricity from solar and wind is intermittent; we can take this energy straight from big solar or wind installations at great sites where it’s cheap and apply it to reclaim and recycle carbon dioxide into new fuel,” Keith says, adding that “Making fuels that are easy to store and transport eases the challenge of integrating renewables into the energy system.”

    The resulting fuels, including gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, are compatible with existing fuel distribution and transportation infrastructure. Thanks to ultra-low life cycle carbon intensities, they are a promising route for reducing carbon emissions in heavy transportation and other sectors of the energy system that are demanding and difficult to electrify.

    Centuries of unchecked human carbon emissions also mean that atmospheric carbon dioxide is a virtually unlimited feedstock for transformation into new fuels. “We are not going to run out of air anytime soon,” adds Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering. “We can keep collecting carbon dioxide with direct air capture, keep adding hydrogen generation and fuel synthesis, and keep reducing emissions through this AIR TO FUELSTM pathway.”

    Keith and Oldham are optimistic that they have reduced scale-up risks by implementing direct air capture at reasonable costs using standard industrial equipment. That means that all the pieces are in place to move on to full-size plants capable of manufacturing 2,000 barrels of fuels per day — totaling over 30 million gallons per year across plants. Commercialization of such plants would allow direct air capture to make a dent in transportation emissions by connecting low-cost renewable energy to low-carbon transportation fuels using Carbon Engineering’s AIR TO FUELSTM pathway.

    “After 100 person-years of practical engineering and cost analysis, we can confidently say that while air capture is not some magical cheap solution, it is a viable and buildable technology for producing carbon-neutral fuels in the immediate future and for removing carbon in the long run,” says Keith.

    Story Source:

    Materials provided by Cell Press. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

    Journal Reference:

    Keith et al. A process for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. Joule, 2018 DOI: 10.1016/j.joule.2018.05.006

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