There are 7.6 billion people on the planet today. By 2050, there are projected to be 9.7 billion—or put another way, in just thirty years we will add the equivalent population of seven United States. The world’s most credible energy forecasting entities predict a global increase over that time not only in demand for energy, but demand for fossil energy. Even with steady increases in energy efficiency and a massive increase in renewables, consumption of fossil fuels will grow. That means carbon dioxide emissions won’t be reduced significantly without some technology to do so.The only technology to deeply reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuels is carbon capture and storage. CCS can control and sequester nearly all greenhouse gas emissions from an industrial facility.
Is this vision realizable? Indeed: the United States has more than 700 years’ worth of capacity in deep saline formations and similar geologic strata to store the carbon dioxide we generate.
Importantly, capturing carbon dioxide costs money, and people would rather get value for the CO2 they capture than put it in the ground for nothing. To the rescue comes CO2-EOR. About 4 percent of total U.S. oil production today comes from enhanced oil recovery via CO2 injected into oil formations. We have over 100 years’ worth of storage capacity in oil formations alone, and the more we look, the more we find. We are by far the world leader in this technique. The United States has been producing oil with CO2 for 45 years, and the injected gas is proven to stay trapped underground.
Other countries have coal and oil deposits located near one another, where coal can be used to produce electricity and the CO2 can be captured and easily shipped by pipeline for production of oil.
The above facts have more to do with whether the world meets climate targets than does increasing efficiency and use of renewables.
There are people around the world pushing divestment from fossil fuels because of climate concerns. To serve their goal, they instead ought to be pushing for investment to improve clean fossil fuel technology. However, policies today all over the world favor renewables as the preferred energy source. The International Energy Agency found that in the decade from 2004-13, world governments provided nearly $2 trillion in renewables subsidies, while investing barely 1 percent of that to developing CCS technologies.
In the United States renewables have received government support in the form of mandatory purchases (through the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act), set asides (through state renewable portfolio standards), tax credits, loan guarantees, grants, and other programs. CCS has similar climate benefits, but despite its importance is not on an equal footing.
Investment in renewables has borne results. Costs have come down and market penetration has gone up. The same is expected for CCS. That is the aim of the Department of Energy’s research and development programs: to bring the costs down for CCS and to “mature” the technology across a variety of applications and circumstances.
Last year, the first full-scale CCS project on a power plant in the United States began operation—the PetraNova project at the W.A. Parish plant in Texas. The technology by all reports is working very well. It is the second power plant in the world to deploy full-scale CCS, the other being SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Unit 3 in Saskatchewan, Canada. Both first-of-a-kind projects offer lessons and efficiencies for next-of-a-kind projects.
To add a final acronym, both also are CCUS projects—carbon capture, utilization, and storage. At both facilities, the CO2 is being used to produce crude at nearby oil fields. Think of CCUS petroleum as “low carbon oil.”
It may be surprising to know that there are parts of the world today that would love to store CO2 because of its potential for oil production, if only they could get the gas. We have too little captured carbon dioxide because of a gap between the cost of capture and what drillers will pay for it. In the United States, Congress is considering increasing current tax credits to close that gap. Another factor to change the economic equation is research: finding ways to get more oil per molecule of CO2 injected. So is development: recent lab results are promising.
CCS is a win-win, with perhaps additional wins appended. It has climate benefits, energy benefits, U.S. technology benefits, and potentially geopolitical benefits if the United States can help allies better control their own energy futures.