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The Case for Carbon Capture

Ed Dodge's picture
  • Member since 2013
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  • Jun 2, 2015

boundary dam coal plant

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) has been identified as crucial in the efforts to reign in CO2 emissions that are causing climate change by leading agencies such as the UN IPCC, the International Energy Agency and the World Bank.

But CCS, the process of physically capturing CO2 emissions from industrial systems like power plants, pressurizing the CO2 into liquid form, and transporting it via pipeline to locations where it can safely be stored underground is the black sheep of carbon reduction strategies. We need it, but no one seems to want it. The environmental left is hesitant to support CCS because the process is viewed as a means to keep the fossil fuel industries operating well into the future. Industry and conservatives often treat CCS as an expensive and unproven albatross that will strangle business.

There is an element of truth to both of these positions. CCS is expensive and has never been built to the scale required, though all of the individual technical components have long been proven. CCS is also critical to the long-term viability of fossil fuels, particularly coal, in a carbon constrained future. Industry needs to do their part in driving down costs, and the left needs to recognize that fossil fuels are not going away (in our lifetimes) no matter how much renewables or nuclear power get built out.

The opposition to CCS on both sides fail to recognize the value proposition that carbon capture offers. Utilizing captured carbon offers the promise of a new industry and the potential for a massive energy security prize. It is well known that the largest potential demand for industrial CO2 comes from the oil industry who injects CO2 into mature oil fields to maintain productivity in a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). What is less understood is just how large that demand can potentially be.

There are enormous quantities of oil available to be produced using CO2-EOR, if enormous quantities of CO2 can be supplied to the oil fields at the right price. Conventional oil drilling only produces about 1/3 of the original oil in place, CO2-EOR can potentially liberate another 1/3 of the original oil while leaving the CO2 behind in the ground.

Numerous studies from the Department of Energy and industry have found that there are tens of billions of barrels of oil available to be produced using CO2-EOR which would result in billions of tons of CO2 being permanently sequestered. It has also become clear that the revenues earned from selling CO2 are absolutely critical to financing carbon capture projects and infrastructure. Almost every successful commercial carbon capture project has sold the CO2 for use in EOR, while projects like FutureGen that proposed to bypass those revenues by focusing on CO2 disposal have mostly failed.

The EOR industry has demand for billions of tons of CO2, but only at the right price, and today the cost of capture from coal power plants is too high, there is a price gap. The coal industry is producing many billions of tons of CO2, but cannot afford to capture it. The EOR industry will pay around 2.5% of the price of a barrel of oil for one ton of CO2, the CO2 price is linked to the oil price. The price gap currently is $30-$50 per ton of CO2.

Federal policies should work to bridge the price gap and market failure that is preventing CO2 from being utilized in the market. There is enormous potential demand for CO2. The DOE studies indicate that 20 gigatons of CO2 (giga = 1 billion) would be needed to produce 85 billion barrels of oil from US oil fields, this is equivalent to all of the CO2 from roughly half of the current US coal power fleet for the next forty years. But to make this ambition a reality, carbon capture costs need to be cut in half. This domestic oil from established fields can offset the need to explore for oil in sensitive environments such as the arctic or imports from hostile regions.

Even though carbon capture is expensive, the technology works and is improving. And the best way to bring down costs in any industry is to ramp up production. This has been demonstrated in the last decade with wind and solar power where costs have fallen dramatically as factories have ramped up. The same will be true for CCS, more projects are needed.

There is a list of historical policy measures that can be applied to carbon capture that are not in effect today. Tax credits such as investment tax credits for capture equipment or sequestration tax credits are the most broadly applicable, and if structured properly can be revenue positive for the Treasury over time. Additionally, there are opportunities for tax free bonds to be leveraged.

There are needs for regularity clarity around the injection of CO2 and proper accounting for CO2-EOR as a bona fide carbon emissions reduction strategy. There is much that can be done to improve the permitting for CO2 pipelines and establishing pipeline corridors, particularly on federal lands out west where most of the EOR opportunities exist. And more funds are needed for demonstration projects that can help the industry move beyond expensive first-of-a-kind facilities.

The recent retrofit of the Boundary Dam coal power plant in Saskatchewan, Canada has been a huge success. The facility now captures 90% of its CO2 and markets all of its sulfur and coal ash, it is the cleanest coal power plant in the world. This success should be repeated.

The framework is clear, CCS is a requirement for meeting carbon emissions targets, CCS needs the revenues from CO2-EOR to be financially viable, and there is an enormous energy prize available if CO2-EOR is widely employed. By following this path the US will make great strides on both energy security and environmental goals. The challenge now is to put forward effective policies that will help bridge the price gap on carbon capture.


Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Jun 2, 2015

Non-hydro renewables presently contribute only 6.8% of US electricity, after all the subsidies and mandates.  For China, there seems to be no realistic alternative to coal power.  India too. 

Let’s hope China can solve the air pollution problems incident to coal power.  The US has failed, so now the world must look to China to develop the technology to capture CO2 and then dispose of it. 

 Enhanced oil recovery (EOR) could use only a tiny fraction of the billions of tonnes each year from coal power.  Even if the huge infrastructure to transport that much CO2 could be built, CO2 compressed to a supercritical state has to be hammered into rocks whose pore space is full of very salty brine.  Where would that displaced ocean of brine go?  The risk of salting the groundwater is not negligible, as technically unsophisticated energy pundits seem to assume.

 Earthquakes from injection wells are another unsolved problem for sequestration.  The earthquake risk is not negligible, and very likely a worse disaster than global warming.

 At the scale of 2 billion tonnes per year, sequestration in the US looks fundamentally impractical, and attempts to make it work (like the recently punted FutureGen2 project in Illinois) are a waste of time and money.  Trying to extrapolate EOR experience to sequestration is an elementary error, as petroleum engineers (Ehlig-Economides, et al.) have pointed out, because EOR is an open system, and sequestration by definition (if it’s secure) is a closed system.  Secure storage in an open system is nonsense. 

  Post-combustion CO2 capture by surface chemistry is another fundamentally wrong approach that could never work at a scale that would make an impact on global warming. Amine sweetening, to remove CO2 from natural gas, is a mature technology (from the ’30s) but it can’t possibly scale from the oil field to what’s needed for a coal plant (5,000 tpd).  Water consumption would double.  Quenching the hot flue gas to 30-60C so the amine sorbents can work is possible but not economical.  Wet cooling at thermal power plants already consumes more fresh water than any other use, and doubling that waste of water during a drought is not a realistic plan. 

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jun 3, 2015

“It is well known that the largest potential demand for industrial CO2 comes from the oil industry who injects CO2 into mature oil fields to maintain productivity in a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). What is less understood is just how large that demand can potentially be.”

But if we do not keep the grease in the ground, we are in effect saying that we are giving up on fighting catastrophic climate change … in effect, “après moi le deluge”. Using captured carbon from coal GHG emissions in order to recover more petroleum for more petroleum GHG emissions is an example of the kind of counter-productive “solution” that would be hammered hard by a serious price on carbon emissions.

And that is part of the concrete critique that is waved at vaguely where the piece says: “The environmental left is hesitant to support CCS because the process is viewed as a means to keep the fossil fuel industries operating well into the future.” It is not just that CCS is, in practice, often not merely a system for ‘keeping fossil fuel industries operating’, but a system for keeping fossil fuels emitting CO2 indefinitely into the future.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of CCS is in the sequestration of carbon that can be proven. So no special policy is required to support CCS: simply put a carbon price on a track to make high-emitting energy sources commercially inviable, and then whatever CCS can accomplish will determine the extent to which we do continue to use fossil fuels for combustion into the indefinite future.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jun 3, 2015

It would be interesting to see the details and the assumptions behind the cited estimate for the amount of CO2 that could be sequestered by EOR operations. Half of the output for all US coal-fired plants for 40 years is an order of magnitude higher than the number I came up with some time back. My conclusion was that EOR operations could pay for development of better capture technology and fund an initial set of demonstration projects, but that the subsidy-free market would not be large enough to deal with a useful fraction of power plant CO2 emissions.

Admittedly, the numbers were soft, and there was considerable elasticity depending on the price ratio for CO2 vs. oil. The recovery curve for barrels of oil vs. tons of CO2 pumped into a given field is not linear. It starts out with a respectable slope and then gradually levels off. If CO2 is expensive, operators will use it sparingly. They’ll suspend operations when the recovery ratio falls below breakeven. But if CO2 is cheap —  presumably due to a price on carbon emissions — the operators will continue operations until the recovery ratio approaches zero. The limiting factor is typically economics, not the CO2 holding capacity of the oil fields.

An emerging technology that could expand the market for captured CO2 is CO2 plume geothermal. Because of geotherma heating, the super-pressurized CO2 that comes up with the oil can generate more power than it took to pump it into the reservoir rock. Even after the oil content in the fluid from the production well has fallen close to zero, it may be worth continuing operations for the power generated and the sequestration credits.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jun 3, 2015


“après moi le deluge”

Very appropriate. 

I’m looking forward to the Pope’s encyclical. It would be interesting if he goes so far to say excessive carbon emissions is a sin. I mean, if what we’re doing to future generations is not a sin, nothing is.

But just imagine the fit the denier crowd will have.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jun 3, 2015


DOE has done a lot of research characterizing the resource potential for CO2-EOR both in terms of CO2 sequestration and oil production. The numbers I present in the article are actually pretty modest because they only cover the oil fields that have been studied in some detail, while there remains large categories of potential fields that have not been studied. For example there is huge, but uncharacterized potential for CO2-EOR in the Bakken Shale, where productivity today is low and much oil remains in place. Researchers believe that CO2 in shale could open up billions of barrels more, but since it is new technology no one can say for sure, but they are working on it. The numbers above are also only for the USA, but EOR opportunities in Saudi Arabia and the rest of MENA are pretty staggering if you can get the CO2 there. 

There is a good article here where I pulled the data from. The link is a kind of a kluge, it opens up an online magazine and you can find the article on p. 36.

And to all the folks who have a knee-jerk opposition to CO2-EOR simply because it produces more oil I would simply point out that there is no evidence that we are going to stop drilling for oil any time. Demand for energy remains sky high and the reserves continue to grow with technology advances. It it is tough to fight supply and demand.

Personally, I would like to see the oil industry step up to the plate on CO2-EOR and accept that they have a role to play in limiting carbon emissions and do their part by injecting CO2 into their fields. The industry could choose to put more efforts into CO2-EOR rather than drilling in the arctic or other sensitive locations.

I would also point out that the Middle East is going up in flames and as long as we are dependent on those resources we are vulnerable as a nation to disruptions. We have plenty of resources in North America that we can be net energy exporters and compete with Middle East supplies rather than depend on them.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jun 3, 2015

And to all the folks who have a knee-jerk opposition to CO2-EOR simply because it produces more oil I would simply point out that there is no evidence that we are going to stop drilling for oil any time.”

There is a bit of a shell game in this argument: the prediction that we are not going to stop drilling for oil any time soon is used to justify a policy subsidizing the use of CO2 captured from coal plants to increase exploitation of existing reserves.

At the same time that there is no evidence that we are going to do what we need to do about oil production, which is to eventually stop doing it, the fact remains that either we do eventually stop producing oil, or we are toast.

If CCS requires Enhanced Oil Recovery in order to be viable, then it does not offer a long term low-carbon, no-carbon energy source any more than corn-starch ethanol does, and so, just like corn-starch ethanol, in a sane policy would not qualify for special subsidies. Special subsidies to ensure the development of particular technologies should be focused on those technologies that can possibly be part of a long term sustainable energy system … development of sustainable harvest of variable renewables, development of sustainable biomass energy sources, development of sustainable advanced nuclear fuel cycles. The more technologies we develop that might feasibly be part of a long term carbon neutral energy supply system, the better, and the development of a broad range is a form of national-level insurance policy.

That may include research in and infant-industry subsidies for CCS for sequestration independent of oil production, but not CCS-EOR.

In a Carbon Pricing system, then the proven sequestered CO2 could certainly be credited, the CO2 emissions from the petroleum charged, and if the difference between the two makes CCS for EOR economic, that makes CCS for EOR a “bridging” or transitional CO2 emissions mitigation strategy.

But the correct long term Carbon Price will be the one that ensures that oil production stops, and so under the correct long term Carbon Price, CCS for EOR will not offer any commercial advantage over any other CCS.

That is, if the least cost net emissions reduction over some period of time includes some CCS with EOR, then a sufficiently aggressive Carbon Pricing policy will make that commercially viable for a period of time … but once we have achieved the emissions reduction available with CCS-EOR, that will clearly not be enough long term emissions reduction, and we would then have to move on to either CCS without EOR or else replacement of the fossil power with CCS with another energy source with lower GHG emissions. And our technology-specific subsidies ought to be focused on those long-term viable energy sources, not on temporary bridges that we have to then abandon.


Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jun 3, 2015

If the amount of CO2 left in the reservoir after EOR operations is greater than the CO2 that will be released by burning the hydrocarbons extracted, then the operation is carbon-negative. Under that proviso, there’s no reason — based on carbon balance alone — why extraction should not continue indefinitely. (There may be other environmental reasons for stopping it, but that’s a separate issue.)

In a rational world, fossil fuels would be subject to a tax sufficient to cover the external costs of extracting and burning them. That would logically include the cost of CCS — whatever that cost might be. In the economic competition against clean energy alternatives, we’ve elected to award fossil fuels a high handicap: they need not price in their external costs, and clean energy alternatives that lack those external costs must compete with them on the basis of internal costs alone.

Using captured CO2 for EOR is a step in the right direction, in that it reduces or eliminates net CO2 emissions from fossil oil. It effectively internalizes the cost of CCS via the price paid for CO2 in oil recovery operations.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 4, 2015

The environmental left is hesitant to support CCS” … Boundary Dam coal power plant … now captures 90% of its CO2”   … “CCS is a requirement for meeting carbon emissions targets…”

With the scientific community (e.g IPCC) continuing to advocate CC&S as part of the CO2 emissions solution, I agree that we must incorporate it into our policy (as public policies that ignore science are a terrible idea).  However, I think that starting our CC&S strategy with coal is a poor choice for the US (although it makes more sense for coal-entrenched countries like China and Germany).  

In the US (according to the EIA), new build coal with CC&S will cost 15 ¢/kWh, more than 50% more than nuclear or fossil gas combined-cycle with CC&S.  Worse yet, it’s cost is primarily capital, so it will have poor economics at reduced capacity factor, thus it makes a lousy compliment to variable renewables.

A better strategy would build CC&S pilot plants fueled with biomass (which the IPCC advocates as a potential source of carbon-negative energy), fossil gas combined-cycle (which will be very very hard to eliminate from a renewable-rich grid), and/or a concrete plant (which produces CO2 regardless of the energy source).

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jun 4, 2015

“If the amount of CO2 left in the reservoir after EOR operations is greater than the CO2 that will be released by burning the hydrocarbons extracted, then the operation is carbon-negative.”

No, if the purpose of the CCS is to refrain from killing off fossil fuel consumption, then this is not CO2 captured from the atmosphere, this is a portion of the CO2 created by combusting fossil fuels. 100% effectiveness at CCS is taking already sequestered carbon (coal, the carbon content of natural gas) and putting it back into sequestration … so the CCS side is at best carbon neutral.

And there is no particular reason to expect CCS to be 100% effective.

The total emissions will be the non-captured component of the carbon capture for CCS, and the additional emissions from the additional recovery of petroleum, almost all of which will be combusted in a context where CCS is not feasible.

“Using captured CO2 for EOR is a step in the right direction, in that it reduces or eliminates net CO2 emissions from fossil oil. It effectively internalizes the cost of CCS via the price paid for CO2 in oil recovery operations.”

It only does by allocating all of the carbon emissions to the coal or natural gas generator that captured the carbon dioxide, in order to be able to ignore where the carbon came from when pretending that sequestring it again is a carbon negative action.

If the CCS was applied to biocoal combustion from a sustainable biomass feedstock or to biogas, then its sequestration would be carbon negative … which suggests that it may be possible to get even “lossy” CCS to carbon neutrality by including biocoal with mineral coal or biogas with fossil gas. For example, if the CCS is 80% effective, and the sequestration is without additional carbon emissions as a side-effect, then a 4:1 mineral coal : biocoal mix would allow carbon neutral energy production from that power plant. That could well be an effective technique to avoid wasting the sunk costs on relatively new coal fired power plants that are compatible with CCS. But any new carbon emissions there are as a consequence as use of the CO2 for EOR would still have to be offset.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 4, 2015

Ed, we could put ourselves on track to only consume as much fossil fuel as the carbon equivalent we can sequester. To begin with even a modest 10% would be enormously expensive, and would exceed  the current ratio by a factor of one hundred.

IPCC says that’s where we need to be by 2100 to achieve +2C. Would you support such a policy, and if not, what temperature burden would you deem acceptable to add to our carbon tab, payable by the global populus of 2100: +4C? +12C?

Anything else is hypocrisy.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jun 4, 2015


I believe it is possible to bring carbon emissions into balance with the Earth’s existing natural carbon cycle through a combination of:

1. Maximum efficiency in the use of fossil fuels (leveraging renewables, batteries and nukes to allow us to sip instead of guzzle hydrocarbons).

2. Industrial carbon capture (send the CO2 back into oil fields, coalbeds, and shale as a component of continued hydrocarbon production).

3. Regreening the planet to sequester carbon in soil (reforestation and building healthy soil reduces the need for agricultural chemicals and their runoff pollution).

Hypocrisy is a strong word, folks who rely on products derived from hydrocarbons every day of their life should think twice about their own role in demanding the products that are sold in the market. You hate oil? Don’t buy it. But just keep in mind that the computer you are using to type out your message is very much a hydrocarbon product. Kind of like the kayaktivist protesters in Seattle protesting Shell oil, paddling around in their petroleum based kayaks, with plastic paddles, life jackets, swim suits, water bottles and all the rest. Is the irony of that not lost on anyone?

Sid Abma's picture
Sid Abma on Jun 6, 2015

There is an option to CCS and that option is Carbon Capture Utilization.

Sidel Systems looked at the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and realized it is not against coal combustion but what is leaving the chimneys at these coal power plant. In this combusted exhaust is a bunch of elements that are not good for the atrmosphere if just vented into the atmosphere. We looked at each element and gave it a purpose. Waste with a purpose is no longer a waste.

The coal power plants today are using the technology of ESP to remove the ash particulate. This technology works but consumes approx 20% of all the energy produced at the power plant. Sidel has developed a technology that is just as efficient but consumes just a fraction of the electricity.

There is a lot of heat energy in this combeusted coal exhaust. The Sidel condensing flue gas heat recovery  technology will recover the heat energy and make it available to be used for other usefull purposes.

The Sidel Carbon Capture Utilization System is designed to transform the CO2 in the combusted exhaust into useful – saleable products. Full time jobs will be created operating the CCU System and selling these produced products and then deliering these products to the clients.

In combusted fossil fuel is Water and with the heat energy removed the water is created, and this distilled water is very useable as water is becoming a precious commidity.

CCS and EOR can be a good combination, but where it is not feasable Carbon Capture Utilization must be applied so that the effects of Climate Change can be sequestered.

Ed Dodge's picture
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