After decades of denying climate science, energy, oil and gas companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell are shifting to a stance of carbon capture and storage (CCS) advocacy, but some climate scientists are skeptical of the motives behind the fossil fuel industry’s change of heart.
On May 31, the Carbon Capture Coalition (CCC), Carbon Utilization Research Council (CURC) and the Global CCS Institute served a complimentary lunch of sandwiches and cookies to congressional staffers and policy workers for the third in a series of briefings on CCS technologies. Speakers at the briefing included Associate Director of Energy Research & Development at the Illinois State Geological Survey Sallie Greenberg as well as representatives from Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, environmental group the Clean Air Task Force and the American Geosciences Institute. The speakers took turns explaining different methods of CCS, the state of the industry and how to move forward with scaling up the technology.
The briefing focused particularly on underground storage of captured carbon, which has existed in some form since 1972, according to the CCC’s federal policy blueprint. One such method is saline sequestration, which entails compressing captured carbon into a near liquid state before injecting it into deep saline formations below the earth’s surface. Also discussed was a method known as enhanced oil recovery, which involves injecting carbon dioxide into existing oil fields and using the pressure this process creates to push oil out of the saline formations for extraction.
“A number of [fossil fuel companies] realize that there’s a regulatory regime in place, the Paris Agreement, that’s actually going to have might,” Co-Executive Director of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy Wil Burns told The Globe Post. “One of the things they’re hoping is carbon capture technology will pick up some of the slack and allow them to continue producing fossil fuels for a long time.”
The CCC’s federal policy blueprint lists Shell, Linde Gas North America, Arch Coal and various other fossil fuel companies as participating members of the Coalition. The blueprint cites the passage of the FUTURE Act and its companion the Carbon Capture Act, which expanded a tax credit for companies that use CCS technology, as a top legislative priority for the CCC. Most of the companies listed as members of the Coalition also lobbied for the passage of these bills, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Whether or not we can completely decarbonize is a question I’m not sure that we can answer right now,” Greenberg told The Globe Post. “I think reframing the question to consider where we want to be and what technologies will help us get there is where carbon management and emissions abatement can help us achieve that goal.”
Learn about carbon capture and storage, a process that can reduce emissions for a cleaner world. pic.twitter.com/S2OgQvCRsm
— ExxonMobil (@exxonmobil) June 3, 2019
Greenberg said major oil and gas companies are “very interested” in CCS and recognize it’s a component of our present and future energy landscapes. She added that those companies are working to deploy CCS to the benefit of both society and industry.
Burns thinks fossil fuel companies realize there is money to be made and long term market opportunities in CCS.
“The same people that produced the problem will ultimately make a lot of money in disposing of it,” he said.
Burns pointed to recent studies from Shell and British Petroleum and said they assume that there will be “substantial” CCS in the second half of the 21st century which will ensure we can keep warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. He said in order to make that happen, the fossil fuel industry will have to make some commitment to CCS, but cautioned against allowing overly optimistic estimates of the potential of CCS to create a “moral hazard” in terms of aggressive mitigation responses to climate change.
The Global CCS Institute’s Senior Advocacy and Communications Advisor Lee Beck told The Globe Post that in order to prevent disastrous climate change, warming must be kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is in line with the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 1.5-degree report, which anticipates far more severe outcomes with 2 degrees of warming. The report projects an additional 10 centimeters of sea level rise and an almost total decline of coral reefs (greater than 99 percent) under 2 degrees of warming compared to a 70-90 percent decline under 1.5 degrees.
Burns, however, was less optimistic than Beck and questioned whether staying below 2 degrees of warming is even possible at this point.
“If you look at what the IPCC is projecting and what Paris is telling us, we’re looking at somewhere between 3.2 and 3.7 degrees, which is catastrophic,” Burns said. “I think if you can remove up to 5 to 7 gigatons of carbon annually, maybe you can hold it to 2.5 degrees. It still has incredibly serious implications for vulnerable people…but at least it gives you a better world than what they’re projecting.”
In its 5th assessment report, the IPCC particularly focused on the process of extracting bioenergy from biomass and capturing and storing the carbon, known as BECCS. BECCS involves growing plants to capture carbon dioxide from the air, harvesting them, and burning them for energy while capturing the carbon released in the process for storage in underground formations.
According to the UN, most scenarios for keeping warming below 2°C would require “the availability and widespread deployment” of a geoengineering technique known as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) in the 2nd half of the century.https://t.co/h1UgzzN7SX pic.twitter.com/LezPr2ICAa
— Yale Environment 360 (@YaleE360) May 31, 2019
Burns said many questions remain in regard to just how large scale CCS can be and noted that using BECCS at the scale necessary to keep warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (between 15 and 20 gigatons of carbon removed per year) is “not a sustainable proposition.”
“That would require massive diversion of forest and agricultural lands and it would result in substantial increases of food prices,” he explained. “It would require huge amounts of water. Even at 10 gigs, it would require as much water as all the water we currently use for irrigation.”
According to Burns, other issues with BECCS may be its implications on biodiversity and the amount of time needed to grow plants for bioenergy as time to address the climate crisis runs out.
Beck said in order to reduce emissions to zero by midcentury, CCS is expected to play a role in the entire decarbonization portfolio. That would mean cobbling together several different methods of CCS at a smaller scale, in addition to deploying other technologies such as wind and solar to bring down carbon emissions. Such an approach could address some of the issues with large scale deployment of BECCS.
Today, industry accounts for almost 1/4 of CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels & industrial processes and 40% of global energy demand.
Carbon capture, utilisation and storage is critical for industry decarbonisation https://t.co/sTGESNV4xN
— IEA (@IEA) May 29, 2019
Burns considers BECCS a “speculative” method because only about 2 megatons of carbon are currently captured each year using this method.
“When you…start to look at some of the other carbon technologies, it gets even more speculative,” Burns said.
CCS technology will have a necessary role to play in addressing the climate crisis, but the matter of combining different methods for large scale CCS is a “complicated thing,” according to Burns. It assumes all of it can be simultaneously researched, developed, regulated and funded in time to address the problem.
“I’m just not sure it will ever be at the scale that some of the fossil fuel companies sell it at,” he said. “The cynic in me says some of them are selling it at that scale so they can argue that we can let the good times continue to roll… and in the second half of the century, these things will save our bacon. I don’t think that’s an ethical way to proceed.”