Is carbon capture and storage a cover for oil production?

It’s an emerging technology that climate experts say can prevent billions of tons of greenhouse gases from entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

By capturing carbon dioxide as it spews from oil refineries, power plants and other industrial smokestacks and then forcing it deep underground for storage, humanity can reduce emissions from fossil fuels while developing alternative energy sources, advocates say.

Now, as California tries to meet ambitious climate goals, environmental officials are capturing and storing carbon, saying the state cannot be carbon neutral without it. .

But as officials prepare to finalize a state-level climate plan based on CCS technology, some environmentalists are urging officials to abandon the idea. Instead of helping California cut out fossil fuels, they say CCS will actually increase oil production.

By forcing pressurized carbon dioxide into old wells, drillers can flush out crude oil that would otherwise be beyond their reach. At the same time, oil companies can claim tax incentives and avoid financial penalties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

An image shows an oil refinery pumping CO2 underground

Carbon capture and capture technology aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industrial facilities by collecting them from chimneys and pumping them deep underground.

(California Air Resources Board)

“If we were really committed in California to a full fossil fuel transition, we shouldn’t be looking to sustain it,” said Catherine Garoupa White, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Alliance. oil extraction activities in old oil fields.

The debate over how the technology could be deployed could be a reckoning for California, a state that has long grappled with its role as a global leader in the fight against climate change. position and status as one of the nation’s leading oil producers.

Regulators are currently considering more than a dozen CCS proposals that would store millions of tons of carbon dioxide beneath California’s Central Valley — the only area in the state deemed practical for such storage. At least one of those proposals would be used to boost oil production in Kern County.

The state’s climate plan, to be completed by the California Air Resources Council this fall, does not talk about using CCS to produce oil. The staff-proposed proposal calls for more than 220 million tons of carbon emissions to be stored underground over the next two decades.

Critics of the plan worry it could derail Governor Gavin Newsom’s goal of ending all fossil fuel mining in California by 2045.

“Because there’s nothing in the plan about shutting down refinery capacity or shutting down these operations, the concern I’m hearing from people – and I think this is a legitimate concern – is this. could start us on the path of major CCS projects. Danny Cullenward, policy director of CarbonPlan, a California nonprofit that analyzes climate solutions.

However, others see no other way for the state to meet its climate goals. State law requires California to cut emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. A 2018 executive order from the then Government. Jerry Brown sets a goal by 2045 to achieve statewide carbon neutrality – a point at which all carbon dioxide emissions due to human activity are equivalent to emissions removed. from the atmosphere by natural and technological means.

Even as the state continues to encourage the sale of gas-powered cars to electric vehicles and accelerates the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, proponents argue that seizing and storing Carbon storage will be needed as a bridge to offset emissions in the near term.

“The math doesn’t work without it,” said Virgil Welch, executive director of the California Carbon Capture Coalition, a consortium of CCS advocates, mainly from energy companies.

“We want to pursue strategies like carbon capture to cut emissions to support California’s climate goals,” Welch said. “And there is a large part of the environmental community that is effectively saying, ‘No thanks. We don’t want you to do that, ‘that’s just amazing to me. If you step back and think about it, you’ve got the industry saying we want to reduce emissions. “

While the state plan suggests CCS will account for only a small portion of greenhouse gas cuts, the Air Resources Board says it is essential to cut emissions in processes such as cement production. cement – activities that cannot be electrified and provide renewable energy. The state’s climate plan also calls for the technology to be installed on the majority of the state’s refineries by 2030, in an effort to limit emissions while meeting local gasoline and diesel demand. direction.

But this will likely require billions of dollars in investments to install equipment that captures carbon emissions from smokestacks and to build a network of pipelines from the Los Angeles and Bay Area refineries to the Central Valley. .

In addition to the significant cost, some public officials have raised concerns about possible leaks from pipelines and injection sites in earthquake-prone conditions.

“I think we have to strike a balance to reduce emissions more directly,” said Davina Hurt, a member of the Air Resources Board. “Leaks are a real problem. There is large capital involved. And I am concerned that we are unwittingly extending the lifespan as well as the production and consumption of fossil fuels.”

Among the proponents of CCS projects is California Resources Corp., an oil and gas company with headquarters in Long Beach.

California Resources suggested shooting 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually from the Elk Hills natural gas power station, about 20 miles west of Bakersfield. That’s the amount of carbon dioxide that 300,000 cars will produce in a year.

Oil pumps and power lines silhouetted in an obscure oil field.

A haze obscures the setting sun over Elk Hill, where pumping stations operate day and night.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The carbon dioxide would then be pumped into California Resources’ Elk Hills oilfield to produce an additional 51 million barrels of oil over two decades, the company estimates.

According to a government-funded study of the project, the company could “effectively reverse the recent drop in oil production.”

The company – the state’s largest non-government landowner – has said its efforts could lead to the first “zero” barrel of oil in California. However, conventional operations that use carbon dioxide to transfer oil only offset 40% to 50% of emissions per barrel.

“As we envision a net-free future, there is a need to leverage low-carbon solutions, including more sustainable and zero-emission fuels,” said Richard Venn, a company spokesman.

The company has also proposed a multi-stage project called Carbon TerraVault, which will store carbon dioxide from other industrial facilities. It will not be used to enhance oil extraction.

Although international climate management agencies have urged the rapid scaling up of CCS systems worldwide – saying they are an important tool in limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius – the use of this technology has slowed down.

Since the first carbon capture and storage facility began operating in Norway in 1996, only 26 other facilities have been deployed globally. The systems currently sequester 40 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year – a far cry from the 1.7 billion tonnes that international officials would like to see by the end of the decade.

One of the main challenges facing increased production is the cost of the equipment required to capture and pressurize carbon dioxide, as well as the logistical hurdle of transporting the material to storage. Virtually liquefied gas can be transported via pipelines or via trucks or trains.

A 2020 analysis by Stanford University identified more than 70 potential carbon dioxide capture sites across California, including facilities that refine crude oil into gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products. Most of the facilities are concentrated in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, which would require the construction of more than 100 miles of pipelines to reach the Central Valley – the safest area in the state for carbon capture and low passivation. most land. , experts say.

Currently, there are only two avenues to finance such an undertaking: massive government subsidies or allowing private industry to finance these projects by linking them to wells that will produce oil. crude oil, said Cullenward of CarbonPlan.

“There’s no commercial value in sticking CO2 in the ground,” says Cullenward. “The only value comes in avoiding penalties or fees, or tax incentives designed to do so. But those are public policy incentives. There is no private commercial reason to do that. “

Eleven out of 12 large-scale carbon storage facilities in the United States use captured carbon dioxide to produce oil, according to a 2021 report from the Global CCS Institute, an industry group that tracks these facilities.

State Senator Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) is sponsoring a bill banning the use of carbon storage projects to produce oil in California. She’s not opposed to technology; however, she believes it will be harder for California to meet its climate goals if carbon emissions are used to generate a higher rate of oil production.

“If carbon capture is a climate strategy, creating more fossil fuels shouldn’t be,” says Limón.

Limón and other critics also note that CCS technology will help reduce the environmental harm of those living in the shadow of the refineries.

Although the technology removes carbon dioxide, it will not remove carcinogenic benzene, smoke-producing nitrogen oxides, or particulate pollution that refineries emit.

That concerns Alicia Rivera, an organizer with Community for a Better Environment. She said Los Angeles-area residents living near refineries in the South Bay and the Port region will continue to face harmful pollution, despite reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

“Wilmington will continue to be a hotspot and a sacrifice zone. And there is no way out,” Rivera said. “New generations will have to endure the effects of what is already in the air. Carbon sequestration paints a very grim picture for communities on the front lines of fossil fuels. “ Is carbon capture and storage a cover for oil production?

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