Houston Chronicle: Oil industry could lose by gambling on carbon capture
by Chris Tomlinson
Every morning, when I sit down behind my computer, I set my coffee cup on a coaster that reads: “A visionary CO2ncept for a Cleaner Tomorrow.”
The graphic shows exhaust leaving a coal-fired power plant, running through a tower that extracts the carbon dioxide and then pushes it through a pipeline to an oilfield, where workers pump the greenhouse gas underground to force up oil and sequester the CO2.
I picked up the coaster at the 2014 groundbreaking of NRG Energy’s $ 1 billion Petra Nova carbon capture project. At the time, I declared the project “the kind of innovation that reduces greenhouse gases without significant harm to our economy and at no risk to the electricity consumer.”
Disappointingly, NRG has shutdown Petra Nova. The project only worked by selling the recovered oil for $80 a barrel or more. Capturing and sequestering the gas for $40 oil makes no economic sense.
I wrote my first column on Petra Nova almost exactly six years ago, when I was a rookie columnist. Burning coal was the cheapest way to generate electricity, natural gas cost twice as much as it does today and carbon capture was a fringe idea hyped by executives like David Crane, who as CEO of NRG was trying to build a climate-friendly company.
Oh, how the world has changed.
U.S. coal production and consumption dropped in 2019 to its lowest levels since 1978, according to the Energy Information Administration. Natural gas sells for less than $2 per million British Thermal Units, and new wind and solar projects produce cheaper electricity than new coal-fired plants.
Meantime, NRG’s board forced Crane out because Wall Street does not like energy companies that dabble in both renewables and fossil fuels. NRG CEO Mauricio Gutierrez refocused the company away from owning generation and more toward retailing electricity to consumers.
Talk of carbon capture, though, has become decidedly mainstream. Chevron is running an ad campaign bragging about investing $1 billion to trap CO2. Dozens of fossil fuel companies tout carbon capture as their way forward as governments crackdown on emissions, which is why Petra Nova’s shutdown is so ominous.
Occidental Petraleum and others already pump CO2 out of the ground in Colorado and then down into Permian Basin wells. Oil and gas companies have been planning to use enhanced oil recovery to finance large-scale carbon capture projects, just as NRG did, to argue they are part of the climate change solution.
The world’s largest oil and gas companies are promising to capture as much carbon as they produce in hopes that carbon neutrality will allow them to keep producing.
While carbon capture and sequestration are well understood, the problem is it’s expensive, ranging between $40 and $232 a ton depending on the process, according to a European Union analysis. Petra Nova was the most successful U.S. carbon capture project yet, but only because it produced high-priced oil.
NRG says it will resume capturing carbon dioxide if oil prices rise again, but in the meantime, the W.G. Parish Plant will resume releasing 350,000 cars-worth of carbon dioxide every day.
Sadly, no one expects $80 oil again anytime soon. But the pressure to reduce carbon emissions grows every day. The public is demanding action on climate change, and banks have formed the Partnership for Carbon Accounting, pledging to limit financing for carbon-polluting projects.
Fossil fuel companies cannot afford carbon capture in the short-term, but they know they need it to survive in the long term. Eventually, Americans will elect politicians who will act on climate issues. Ultimately, climate change effects will become so extreme it will become a bipartisan issue.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, interested in propping up oil and gas, supports federal tax incentives for carbon capture as part of the COVID-19 economic relief package.
“Helping eco-friendly energy companies take advantage of existing tax credits will encourage more producers to reduce emissions and could increase the share of carbon-neutral energy companies,” Cornyn wrote in an op-ed along with U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess.
Carbon-neutral energy companies should undoubtedly be our goal, but the technological innovation is moving so fast carbon capture for oil and gas production may no longer make sense. NextEra, one of the nation’s largest electricity generation companies, is closing its last coal plant and opening a solar-powered hydrogen facility to replace natural gas.
Few pundits expected the cost of wind and solar energy to drop so much, so quickly. Energy storage prices are falling just as fast. Petra Nova was a great idea at the time, but fossil fuel companies should take note of how quickly it became obsolete when planning for their future.
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