Climate, Coal and CCS Stir Debate

One casualty of the November 2010 elections was climate change legislation.

The House had passed the Waxman-Markey climate bill, a far-reaching piece of legislation that set a significant marker for the Senate – but Senate Democrats were unable to muster the votes necessary to vote on that bill, or one of their own design, as the clock ran out on the 111th Congress.

With Republicans in control of the House and a trimmed Democrat majority in the Senate, the odds for climate change legislation in the 112th Congress are slim.

This reality was best demonstrated by former West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin (D) in his run for the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D) seat. Manchin aired a campaign commercial of him shouldering a rifle and firing a bullet through a copy of the Waxman-Markey bill. Upon winning election to the Senate he then reportedly secured a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) that the Senate would not take up climate legislation.

Manchin’s opposition is rooted in the fact that the climate proposals that Congress has considered would have a significant negative impact on the use of coal in the United States. And coal is an important economic driver for West Virginia.

Actually, it’s important to the entire nation – especially its role providing affordable base-load electricity for American consumers. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2010 coal supplied 22 percent of our nation’s energy. It projects that in 2035 that contribution will be 21 percent.

But finding ways to use coal more efficiently and cleanly has been a major focus of federal research and development (R&D) spending at the Department of Energy (DOE) for many years, across many administrations. In fact, under the president’s most recent budget request, the DOE’s fossil energy program would be entirely focused on “clean coal” technologies .

And one of the technologies that has received considerable attention is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is a process whereby carbon dioxide is separated from combustion exhaust, such as the flue gas of a coal-fired power plant, and then injected into geologic formations for long-term storage. The idea is to prevent discharge of this carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere.

It is no surprise to readers of this column that the very idea of CCS stirs up significant controversy, with vocal detractors on both sides of the climate debate. People who believe that the effects of anthropogenic emissions on climate change are miniscule think it’s a big waste of time and money. Fossil fuel opponents object to any technology that would perpetuate the use of coal.

Meanwhile, the good people of West Virginia, among others, see CCS as a means to preserve a way of life and sustain economic growth.

But side-stepping the climate debate for a moment, we’re already injecting CO2 into the subsurface for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Are there experiences from CO2 flooding operations that could benefit an emerging CCS sector, while simultaneously boosting domestic oil production?

The Role of Enhanced Oil Recovery in Accelerating the Deployment of Carbon Capture and Sequestration symposium, convened last summer by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative and the Bureau of Economic Geology at University of Texas Austin, considered that question. It was chaired by MIT professor Ernest Moniz of MIT and past AAPG president Scott Tinker of UT-Austin, and included more than 60 representatives from industry, government, NGOs and academia.

The recently released symposium proceedings reveal the complexity of this enterprise with numerous findings that include:

♦The need to distinguish between CO2 flooding and EOR-based CCS.

In the former, CO2 is recycled as part of EOR operations; in the latter, long-term storage of CO2 in the formation is a prime objective.

♦The volumetric storage potential of existing and potential petroleum reservoirs suitable for CO2 EOR is larger than expected, especially if residual oil zones are included.

♦The incremental oil produced during an EOR-CCS operation provides an important economic return, but is insufficient on its own to spur large-scale adoption. There must be a commercial incentive to store the CO2.

♦Transportation of CO2 from where it is captured to where it is used remains a challenge, and will require new business models to manage supply/demand.

♦Long-term liability and pore space ownership for EOR-CCS are just two of many regulatory hurdles that need to be overcome.

♦The Permian Basin of west Texas, where CO2-based EOR began, is a logical laboratory to test and develop new concepts.

♦A significant and integrated federal research, development and demonstration program is necessary to realize the potential of EOR-CCS.

AAPG’s statement on geologic carbon storage clearly expresses the Association’s view on the practice:

“Geologic CO2 storage represents an important technology for mitigating increased atmospheric CO2.

“Just as industry experience in CO2 EOR and EGR (enhanced gas recovery) benefits geologic carbon storage activities, research and technology development for carbon storage will also increase understanding of subsurface processes occurring in CO2 EOR and EGR operations. This should result in increased efficiency and broader opportunities for the production of incremental oil and gas.

“Therefore, AAPG urges the expansion of funding for scientific research on permanent carbon storage and for the scientific research related to reservoir performance.”

The Society of Independent Professional Earth Scientists (SIPES) Houston chapter is hosting a “Top Secrets of Successful Independents” seminar on July 15. Dan Smith, a past AAPG president and past chair of the GEO-DC Governance Board, and I will be there co-presenting a session titled, “Navigating the Policy Issues Facing the Independent.”

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