Big oil is racing to scale up carbon capture to slash emissions but the challenges are immense

A standard drilling rig that Chevron will be drilling its first onshore test well for the 14,000-acre Bayou Bend CCUS project is photographed on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 in Winnie area. It is expected to have the capacity to store more than 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in underground geologic structures.
Yi-Chin Lee | Houston Chronicle | Hearst Newspapers | Getty Images

A paper mill in a small Mississippi town could help demonstrate whether capturing carbon dioxide emissions and storing it deep underground is a viable path to fight climate change.

The proposed project at International Paper‘s mill in Vicksburg was chosen by the Department of Energy in February to receive up to $88 million in taxpayer funding. If successful, the system would capture and permanently store 120,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of 27,000 gas-powered cars, according to the companies behind the project.

Amazon, a partner in the project, sources containerboard from the mill for its boxes and packaging. SLB, the oilfield services giant formerly known as Schlumberger, is designing and engineering the carbon capture system in collaboration with RTI International, a nonprofit that developed the technology.

The Vicksburg paper mill project is just one example of how $12 billion in funding from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law is supporting the development of carbon capture technology across the United States, as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Carbon capture and storage technology today is expensive, logistically complex and faces controversy over its role in the energy transition and safety concerns in communities where pipeline infrastructure would be expanded.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency has described carbon capture and storage as “critical” to achieve global net-zero emissions, while also warning the oil and gas industry against using the technology as a way to maintain the status quo on fossil fuels. Some climate activists accuse the industry of simply investing in carbon capture as way to extend the use of oil and gas.

The technology typically uses chemical absorption to capture carbon dioxide emitted from the chimney of an industrial plant. The emissions are condensed into a fluid for transport, normally through a pipeline, and are stored thousands of feet below ground in depleted oil wells or geological formations such as saltwater reservoirs.

The challenges to implementing the technology are immense. The world needs to capture more than 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually by 2030, more than 20 times the 45 million metric tons captured in 2022, according to the IEA. By 2050, the amount of carbon that’s captured needs to reach 6 billion tons — more than 130 times the 2022 level, according to the agency.

But the track record of carbon capture and storage so far has been one of “underperformance,” with only 5% of announced projects having reached a final investment decision, according to the IEA. The industry needs to demonstrate that the technology can operate economically at scale after struggling to ramp up deployment for years, the agency says.

The Vicksburg papermill project is still in an early development stage. SLB is confident that it will prove technologically viable, said Fred Majkut, senior vice president of carbon solutions at the company. The goal is to demonstrate that carbon capture and storage is also economically viable, Majkut said.

“The economic viability of carbon capture and sequestration is a challenge today because the cost of building most plants in order to capture carbon dioxide are very significant,” the executive said. It can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to retrofit an industrial plant, he said.

For International Paper, the Vicksburg project is a potential way to produce lower carbon products for consumers who are climate conscious and a potential opportunity to benefit financially through the sale of carbon credits.

“There are examples in the marketplace where customers have the opportunity to express their preferences economically, whether that’s clicking a button to say they want to abate the carbon emissions for a trip in an Uber or an airplane,” said Adam Miklos, director of low carbon innovation at International Paper.

“Ultimately, it has the potential to reduce our emissions and, if successful, present an opportunity to sell carbon and renewable credits,” Miklos said.

Decarbonizing heavy industry

The Mississippi mill is a snapshot of how the oil and gas industry is trying to demonstrate that carbon capture and storage is a viable tool in the race to slash emissions, after using similar technology for decades to extract oil.

The industry has used carbon storage techniques since the 1970s in a process called enhanced oil recovery, in which carbon dioxide is injected underground to create pressure that pushes more crude toward production wells.

Chevron, Exxon, Baker Hughes and SLB, among others, are now repurposing that expertise, betting that carbon capture and storage will serve a large market of heavy industries such as cement and steel that have few good options right now to slash their emissions.

Total spending on carbon capture and storage projects is expected to reach $241 billion worldwide by 2030 if all announced projects materialize, according Rystad Energy. The United States and the United Kingdom are the leaders, with investments expected to reach $85 billion and $45 billion, respectively, by the end of the decade, according to Rystad.

In the U.S., investment in carbon management technologies more than doubled to $1.2 billion in 2023, the first full year after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, according to the Clean Investment Monitor. The law supports the industry with tax credits of up to $85 per ton of emissions captured and stored.

Cement plants, for example, produce emissions not only by burning fossil fuels, but also due to the materials used in the manufacturing process. About two-thirds of the industry’s carbon dioxide emissions come from chemical reactions that occur when breaking down limestone.

Cement is one of the most widely-used products globally, second only to drinking water, and is responsible for about 7% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions alone, according to the United Nations. Cement and steel together represent about 14% of global emissions, according to the U.N.

“Right now, these types of industries have no way to effectively decarbonize to net zero without carbon capture,” Majkut said. “If they want to produce cement, there will be CO2 emissions simply because of the materials that are being used.”

With carbon storage already a mature commercial business, SLB is trying to tackle the capture side, which presents one of the major hurdles to scaling up the technology due to its high cost, according to Majkut. The solvent that would be used to catch carbon dioxide molecules at the Mississippi mill promises to lower the energy requirements of the capture process and make it more cost effective, he said.

“We’re quite comfortable that in the next 12 to 24 months, we will be coming to market with actually that chemistry as part of our core offering and develop what we call process design packages,” Majkut said.

SLB CEO Olivier Le Peuch has said carbon capture and storage will play a leading role in the company’s annual revenue targets of $3 billion by 2030 and $10 billion by 2040 for its new energy portfolio.

SLB this month announced a nearly $400 million investment in Aker Carbon Capture, a pure-play carbon capture company based in Norway, in an effort to accelerate deployment of the technology at commercial scale.

Competitor Baker Hughes is developing direct air capture technology after acquiring a company called Mosaic Materials in 2022. Baker Hughes has not disclosed the value of the deal.

The technology aims to catch low concentration carbon dioxide emissions, which are harder to capture, directly from the atmosphere as well as from industrial plants. Baker Hughes anticipates the technology will most likely come to market by the end of 2026.

Baker Hughes is targeting up to $7 billion in orders by 2030 for its new energy portfolio, which includes carbon capture and storage technology. The company is forecasting a total market for its new energy business of between $60 billion and $70 billion by the end of the decade.

“By 2030, I do believe we’re going to start to see these technologies start to become reasonably competitive,” said Alessandro Bresciani, senior vice president of climate technologies at Baker Hughes.

Chevron, Exxon building Gulf Coast hubs

The Gulf Coast of the United States, home to enormous oil and gas and other industrial plants, is emerging as a center of carbon capture and storage investments in the U.S.

Jeff Gustavson, vice president of lower carbon energies at Chevron, said the region has the potential to quickly increase use of the technology because of favorable geology for storage located close to high concentration emissions that are easier to capture at a lower cost. Some 100 million tons of carbon dioxide are emitted annually from Houston through to Port Arthur, Texas, Gustavson said.

Chevron and Exxon are targeting $10 billion and more than $20 billion, respectively, of spending on emissions-reducing technologies that include carbon capture and storage in major projects under development along the Gulf Coast.

Exxon over the past two years has entered agreements to capture carbon emissions from ammonia and fertilizer producer CF Industries and steelmaker Nucor, both in Louisiana, and industrial gas producer Linde in Beaumont, Texas. The country’s largest oil company is targeting a start-up date for a carbon capture and storage system at CF Industries in the first half of 2025.

Dan Ammann, president of low carbon solutions at Exxon, said those three contracts combined promise to remove 5 million tons of emissions annually — the equivalent of converting 2 million gas-powered cars to electric vehicles.

Exxon completed its acquisition of the carbon-dioxide pipeline operator Denbury for $5 billion in late 2023. The deal gave Exxon more than 900 miles of pipeline stretching through Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas that are located near at least 10 storage sites in the region.

“It gives us sort of instantaneous scale, instantaneous reach, across this huge source of emissions along the Gulf Coast,” Ammann said of the Denbury acquisition. “It gives us the ability to develop storage all along that pipeline as well.”

Exxon says it now owns the largest carbon dioxide pipeline network in the U.S. As the infrastructure comes together, Exxon is seeing “a very high level of interest from a lot of different emitters along the Gulf Coast,” Ammann said.

Chevron is the operator and lead investor in a flagship project called Bayou Bend, which has a 140,000 acre position of permanent carbon dioxide storage space near Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas. The project is a joint venture with minority shareholders Talos Energy and Carbonvert.

Negotiations are currently underway with potential customers, Gustavson said, declining to disclose names. The area is home to large petrochemical, refinery, liquid natural gas and industrial gas operations with significant carbon dioxide footprints, he said.

“Bayou Bend could be one of the largest CO2 storage projects in the world. You’re talking several million tons a year of storage,” Gustavson said. The project has the potential for even more storage capacity depending on how much technical progress is made, the executive said.

While the IEA has described carbon capture and storage as “essential” to slash emissions in sectors like heavy industry, agency director Fatih Birol issued a sharply worded statement in November calling on the oil and gas industry to let go of the “illusion that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture are the solution” to climate change.

Birol’s comments came on the back of an IEA report that called on the industry to invest more in clean energy and accept the “uncomfortable truth” that a successful energy transition will result in the scaling back of fossil fuel production. That sparked a backlash from OPEC, which accused the IEA of vilifying the oil and gas industry.

“We’re not saying carbon capture can be implemented everywhere,” SLB’s Majkut said. “As a matter of fact, the primary way to decarbonize should be energy efficiency, scale up of renewables, and effectively carbon capture shall be used on applications that you can’t easily electrify, that you can’t easily decarbonize otherwise.”

Pipeline opposition

Increasing carbon capture and storage to meet net-zero emissions goals in the U.S. will require a massive expansion of pipeline infrastructure. The Department of Energy estimates that the network of carbon dioxide pipelines needs to grow from about 5,200 miles currently to between 30,000 and 90,000 miles.

“The key is the right geology close by to concentrated emissions,” Gustavson said. “That’s where we see this scaling fastest first, but over time, we will need to build more CO2 infrastructure to be able to transport CO2 much longer distances to access the same storage.”

But the permitting process is challenging because pipelines often cross state lines, requiring lengthy approval from multiple jurisdictions and creating bottlenecks, Majkut said.

Pipeline expansion has faced opposition in communities where residents are worried about the safety of transporting carbon dioxide. In 2020, a pipeline owned by Denbury ruptured just outside the village of Satartia, Mississippi, leading to the release of more than 31,000 barrels of carbon dioxide. More than 40 people were hospitalized and 200 individuals were evacuated from the area. Denbury was fined nearly $2.9 million by the U.S. Transportation Department.

Denbury said in a 2022 report that it had upgraded equipment and procedures in the wake of the pipeline leak to “substantially reduce the risk of similar events in the future, as well as mitigate and diminish the consequences in the event they do occur.”

The Energy Department says carbon dioxide pipelines have a better safety record than natural gas pipelines and other large infrastructure such as electric transmission. There have been no deaths from carbon dioxide pipelines over the past two decades and one injury in addition to the hospitalizations from the Satartia incident, according to the Transportation Department.

There are still a lot of uncertainties surrounding carbon capture and storage, said Miklos, the executive at International Paper. But the Vicksburg project is an opportunity to carefully examine the technical and economic viability and the impact on climate over a multiyear period, he said.

“The primary questions are around the ability to do this in a way that is cost effective,” he said.

This post has been syndicated from a third-party source. View the original article here.

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