For decades, the idea of capturing carbon—either from emissions sites or from the atmosphere itself—was relegated to arcane discussions among climate scientists. In 1965, the U.S. Science Advisory Committee submitted a report to President Lyndon Johnson titled “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment.” The report’s authors argued for aggressive exploration of the “possibilities of deliberately bringing about countervailing climatic changes.” Roughly a decade later, scientists with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis published a paper titled “On Geoengineering and the CO2 Problem” in which they proposed the development of a carbon management system that would have carbon dioxide “collected at proper fuel transformation points and finally injected into the deep seas.” This carbon management system would come to be known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process of capturing carbon dioxide and storing it before its absorption into the atmosphere.
CCS has made little progress as a viable mitigation technology since these papers were published due to the economic and engineering challenges associated with it. But the potential of negative emissions technologies, particularly CCS, features prominently in climate change mitigation pathways. The Paris Agreement’s 1.5ºC long-term temperature goal is, in virtually every scenario, operationalized in part through the use of CCS; and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) includes the use of CCS to achieve its 1.5ºC temperature target in three out of four mitigation scenarios.
In the last year, a number of individuals and corporations made new commitments to CCS. Elon Musk tweeted that he would donate $100 million towards the development of CCS technology. Exxon Mobil launched a new business, Low Carbon Solutions, with a $3 billion dollar investment commitment (Exxon cites CCS as integral to achieving net-zero emissions). Shell Oil released its Energy Transformation Scenarios Report, which deems necessary the rapid development of CCS to achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5ºC long-term temperature goal. And United Airlines announced a multimillion-dollar investment in the development of CCS technology as part of its commitment to eliminating its emissions by 2050.
Amidst this wave of investment in CCS, Petra Nova, the United States’ sole coal-fired carbon capture and storage facility, was shuttered in January of this year. Petra Nova was conceived in 2017 as a joint venture between NRG Energy and Nippon Oil to capture carbon emissions from the W.A. Parish Generating Station in Texas. The captured carbon would then be transported to the nearby West Ranch oil field and, through a technique called enhanced oil recovery (EOR), injected into the underground oil reservoir to push hard-to-reach oil to the surface and boost production at the oil field. The injected carbon would remain sequestered underground at the West Ranch oil field.
Revenues from increased oil production could theoretically cover (or even exceed) the costs associated with CCS, though favorable oil prices are necessary to recover the costs of CCS through EOR. NRG spokesperson David Knox said of Petra Nova in 2017 that “oil revenues pay for the entire project.”
Petra Nova cost a total of $1 billion and received public funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through a $195 million dollar grant. The project represented the first large-scale coal-fired carbon capture facility in the United States and the largest of its kind in the world. It was initially hailed as a pioneer in commercialization of CCS technology. However, plunging oil prices were disruptive to the project from its inception. Petra Nova had been built around the expectation that oil prices would not drop below $75 a barrel, but oil prices averaged $51 a barrel in 2017, $65 a barrel in 2018, and $57 a barrel in 2019. In 2020, oil prices averaged $40 a barrel, and oil futures contracts briefly went negative in April due to collapsing demand from the coronavirus pandemic. NRG announced in May 2020 that Petra Nova had suspended its operations due to deteriorating oil prices. By January 2021, the project had been mothballed indefinitely.
Petra Nova’s story portends some of the challenges that await future deployment and commercialization of CCS technology. The facility only captured around 7% of the W.A. Parish Generating Station’s total carbon emissions and, due to technical difficulties, was inoperable for 33% of its three-year operating period. The CCS technology performed effectively at capturing carbon emissions when the facility was fully functioning, but it was only scaled to capture emissions from a portion of a single coal unit out of the eight units at the power station. Further, the facility was itself powered by a gas generator that produced uncaptured emissions, and the EOR process produced uncaptured emissions of its own. The project’s $1 billion cost was nonetheless considered low relative to other previously unsuccessful attempts at deploying CCS technology.
There is an institutional consensus that interventionist approaches like CCS will be necessary to mitigate climate change, and that reducing emissions is either unfeasible or no longer wholly sufficient. However, the strength of this consensus belies the fledgling nature of CCS technology. It is unclear whether CCS technology will scale fast enough to mitigate climate change, but the technology remains central to government and corporate climate mitigation pathways, most prominently the United Nations’ IPCC Reports. The challenge for policymakers will be to ensure that polluting entities do not defer proven opportunities for mitigation today because of their faith in tomorrow’s unproven technologies.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Mar. 24, 2021.