When it comes to climate change mitigation strategies, carbon capture technologies are something of a holy grail. It’s not hard to see why, either: if we had a way to pull carbon dioxide—the greenhouse gas whose effect on global surface temperatures has so many scientists concerned—out of our atmosphere and either store it or repurpose it, we’d have something of a get-out-of-jail free card. There’s a facility outside of Houston, Texas that aims to do just that, by pulling CO2 emissions from a coal plant and sending those gases to nearby oil drillers to be used to help boost crude drilling productivity in a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The FT reports:
[T]he use of carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery — squeezing more crude out of mature oilfields — has opened up a path to commercial viability for a technology that has been struggling to make headway.
Petra Nova is intended to capture about 1.4m tonnes of carbon dioxide per year at the WA Parish coal-fired power plant near Houston, sending it down a pipeline 80 miles to the West Branch oilfield, which is jointly owned by NRG, JX and Hilcorp, the US exploration and production company. There it is pumped into the reservoir to push out more oil, and the project partners are paid by selling the oil they produce. The US Department of Energy gave a $190m grant — a little under one-fifth of the project’s costs — but apart from that the project is entirely run on commercial terms, and can cover its costs at today’s oil prices of about $50-$55 per barrel.
Let that last sentence sink in: this this Texas-based carbon capture project can stay in the black at current oil prices. For environmentalists everywhere, that’s extraordinarily good news. It’s certainly more encouraging than the fact that the majority of new American power capacity brought online in 2017 is expected to be renewable—though you can be sure that most greens will focus on that latter development.
But in the wider scheme of things, commercially-scalable carbon capture technology has a bigger upside than today’s crop of wind and solar plants. Renewables are inherently intermittent, and the greater their share of an energy market, the more volatile the supply is for consumers. That means that if greens want wind and solar to supplant fossil fuels on the scale that will meaningfully reduce global carbon emissions, scientists are going to need to develop better storage capabilities and smarter grids, and policymakers are going to need to implement those self-same solutions.
Contrast all of that with capturing carbon, which would target the root of our modern climate change problem: greenhouse gas emissions. If more projects like the aforementioned one outside of Houston prove capable of profitably (or even near-profitably) removing greenhouse gases from our atmosphere and either storing or reusing them, we’ll have tackled this issue at its source, and the expensive, unwieldy, and unworkable policy recommendations of the modern environmental movement will become moot. We’ll be watching.