Carbon capture is a no-brainer solution for companies facing net-zero policy goals

July 6, 2021 |

By Ian Palmer, PhD, former BP petroleum engineer

Special to The Digest

Fossil fuel causes 73% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an escape hatch, or an offset, to be used if there are “leftover” GHG emissions.  If a country is on a pathway to reduce GHG to zero by a certain date, but leftover GHG are still being emitted at that date, an amount equal to the GHG leftover can be buried using CCS. The concept is called “net-zero”.

What is carbon capture and storage?

Carbon capture and storage means collecting GHG (usually CO2, the dominant component) and burying it deep underground. “Bury” means to inject CO2 down a well where it’s contained by a non-leaking rock layer, and eventually merges chemically with the rock. The rock layer can be a depleted oilfield or a saline aquifer.

The process, called EOR for enhanced oil recovery, has been used by the oil and gas industry in the US for decades. CO2 is injected at one well to soften up the residual oil that is then produced from a second well along with some of the CO2.

Why CCS is a no-brainer?

First, it will be a huge challenge for the world to make it even close to true-zero GHG emissions by 2050 (the most common goal) because the world’s fossil energy economy and infrastructure are gigantic, worth $87 trillion.

Second, bp have predicted in their “Rapid” scenario that oil and gas will still be 36% of total global primary energy by 2050. CCS projects will be needed to offset the CO2 that comes from burning this 36%.

Third, CCS will also be needed for heavy industries that are difficult to decarbonize, such as cement and steel-making plants that produce significant CO2. One reason Microsoft, Apple and Amazon are looking at CCS technology is to offset the emissions of all the products associated with their businesses – concrete, steel, and paper.

Fourth, the US lags Europe in renewables (8.7% vs 16.5% in 2019). They won’t be able to catch up, and a logical prediction is that the US will need many, many more CCS projects to deal with leftover GHG.

CCS futures for U.S.

The U.S. has plenty of storage capacity just in old oil and gas fields. U.S. now emits 6,000 Mt/year of GHG and this entire amount could be stored each year for 23 years.

But new pipelines to transport GHG would have to be built or old gas pipelines retrofitted. While 45Q tax credits from the US government exist and will help — $50/ton of CO2 injected by CCS, or $35/ton if it’s used for EOR — cost remains a question and carbon-pricing would probably have to be mandated.

ExxonMobil is storing 9 Mt (million tonnes) of CO2 each year, equivalent to 11 million car exhausts each year. The company plans to invest $3 billion on 20 new CCS facilities – some to bury CO2 from other industries, such as cement or steel plants.

Occidental Petroleum are building a direct-air-capture wall of fans in West Texas that will suck in air and separate the CO2 for underground injection. They envisage a new business that will assist other companies to get rid of their CO2.

CCS and Biofuels

Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) is a smart concept that combines bioenergy and CCS. Trees and other plants capture and store CO2 from the air. But when they die and decompose, the CO2 is released back to the atmosphere. If the dead material is burned in a power plant for electricity, or fermented to a biofuel such as bioethanol, it can be used for energy, but it emits CO2 in the process that needs to be removed by a CCS project.

The advantage of BECCS is the capture of CO2 by living plants is much easier than pulling it out of the air, as in the process called direct-air-capture.

There are two disadvantages of BECCS. First, a large amount of land is required to grow the biomass whether it be sugar-cane residue, willow trees or corn. Second, the CO2 stored in the biomass must exceed the total CO2 emitted during biomass production, transport, conversion to energy, and utilization (e.g. burning of the biofuel.)

The only large-scale BECCS facility in the US is the Illinois Industrial CCS plant in Decatur, which received large amounts of DOE funding. The plant produces ethanol from corn and collects CO2 as part of the fermentation process. The CO2 is stored in a saline aquifer 7,000 ft beneath the facility. The facility stores about 0.5 Mt/year of CO2, less than the projected 1 Mt/year. An important learning is that CO2 storage in the Illinois basin is safe and effective.

The first BECCS unit at Drax in the UK is planned to open in 2027, and a second unit in 2029, and store 8 Mt/year of CO2. But the power plant won’t be carbon-negative, meaning net removal of CO2, until 2030.

Rystad Energy has analyzed the future role played by biofuels. They predict that shipping and aviation will eventually be powered by forms of hydrogen (ammonia) rather than biofuels. Still, Rystad anticipates that 3 Gt/year of CO2 will need to be removed from the air by 2050, and this will be shared by BECCS and direct-air-capture.

CCS Future Across the World

Currently, 65% of CCS occurs in the US, with 10% or so in each of Europe, Australia, and the Middle East.

On a worldwide basis, OGCI reported a CCS capacity from 715 sites in 18 countries that would supply projected CCS needs for 1300-2600 years.

CCS in 2020 stored only a puny 40 Mt/year. Rystad predicts it will need to be 8,000 Mt/year by 2050 – a total increase by 200 times. This would represent a 20% growth in CCS year-over-year. The numbers are staggering, but to make it happen a CCS industry would end up as big as the present-day oil and gas industry.

About the Author:

A petroleum engineer and consultant, Ian Palmer, PhD has worked at Los Alamos, The Department of Energy, BP, and Higgs-Palmer Technologies. He is a contributor at Forbes.com and the author of The Shale Controversy.

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