Using Technology To Keep Carbon Emissions In Check

Jan 4, 2016
Originally published on January 5, 2016 2:23 pm

The Paris agreement to curb climate change calls for a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels and the greenhouse gasses they emit, especially carbon dioxide.

Switching to renewable energy helps, but that won't happen fast enough to keep temperatures from rising to dangerous levels. That's why scientists and researchers all over the world also are working on new ways of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.

NPR's Jeff Brady, KQED's Lauren Sommer, Wyoming Public Radio's Stephanie Joyce and Inside Energy's Leigh Paterson tracked down a few examples of this in North America.

The Cost Of Carbon In Alberta (From Jeff Brady)

At an industrial site near Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Royal Dutch Shell recently hosted a grand opening for its Quest carbon capture and storage project.

It's part of Shell's oil sands business. Turning oil sands that are the consistency of sandy Play-Doh into crude oil emits a lot of carbon dioxide. So Shell tries to capture some of that greenhouse gas before it escapes into the air.

"With heat, we flash off the CO2," says Tim Wiwchar, Quest project manager, during a tour of the facility. After the carbon dioxide is compressed, he says, it's piped 40 miles away down a 12-inch pipeline to three injection wells, where it gets stored 1.4 miles underground.

The technology in the Quest project has been around for a while, but it's still expensive: The cost of building and operating this one plant over the next decade is about $970 million. For all that money, it captures only a third of the CO2 that's produced here.

For many companies, such a plant isn't an attractive investment because it's not profitable.

"It creates, maybe, societal value but it doesn't create commercial value," says Shell CEO Ben van Beurden. He says having a cost placed on carbon emissions could give oil companies the incentive to build more plants like Quest.

Just such a program is in the works — announced in November by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. According to the "Climate Leadership Plan," the province will phase in a $30-per-ton, economywide, carbon price.

Shell supports this and says the price should be even higher.

Why would an oil company want the government to increase its costs? The key is increasing costs the same for all oil companies, which would level the playing field so Shell isn't the only one building plants like this.

Van Beurden says he hopes other companies will follow — he's even offering to share what Shell learned here. But so far, he says, there are no takers.

Re-Using Carbon In Wyoming (From Leigh Paterson)

Wyoming is a big coal state, so it has paid particular attention to figuring out how to turn captured carbon from a liability into an asset.

In October, Gov. Matt Mead announced the location of a new carbon-testing lab where CO2 would be "re-imagined," as he put it. The goal is to turn harmful CO2 emissions into building blocks for useful products.

Captured CO2 already is sold to make fertilizer, dry ice and plastics. It can even be used to carbonate your soda.

But the demand for this kind of carbon is still small. According to the International Energy Agency, the industrial market for captured CO2 is around 200 million tons per year — or about 175 times less than the amount of CO2 emitted globally from energy use in 2013.

"The willingness to pay for CO2 to use it in industry is really not stacking up in the current market context," says Simon Bennett, an analyst in the IEA's Energy Efficiency and Environment Division.

Despite these odds, and a serious push from many nations to drastically cut down coal use, coal-dependent economies all over the world are hoping that low-carbon technology will allow the world to keep burning coal for electricity.

"The real fly in the ointment is the technology gap between our desire to do that and our ability to do that," says Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming's School of Energy Resources.

Bridging that gap will take time, money and government support — three huge obstacles to a low-carbon future.

Price Struggles In California (From Lauren Sommer)

California's goal to cut carbon emissions has focused some of the attention on capturing and storing the carbon dioxide emitted from generating electricity.

Six years ago, the company Clean Energy Systems was showing off a new kind of power plant that was meant to be a model project.

It burns natural gas to make electricity, which creates carbon pollution. But the idea was to capture the carbon and put it back underground to permanently trap it in rock layers underneath a dusty lot in the Central Valley.

"This is about changing the way that power is produced," company President and CEO Keith Pronske said in describing the project six years ago. "If you bring the carbon up, use it and put it back."

This was meant to be a shining example of zero-emission energy.

But the plant couldn't find a utility to buy its electricity, because the power was more expensive thanks to the additional costs of burying the carbon.

"It's been a bit of a wild ride and we've had a few bumps," Pronske said last month.

Other carbon capture projects in California aren't faring any better. The federal government offered more than $3 billion in grants, but the projects are big and complicated, and also face resistance from skeptics who worry about environmental impacts. Many projects have been canceled altogether.

"The real issue is getting across the valley of death — of how do we get these first plants built?" Pronske says.

Recovering More Oil In Wyoming (From Stephanie Joyce)

In Wyoming, oil is big business and some want to put CO2 to work producing more of the oil through "enhanced oil recovery."

Oil is hard to get out of the ground and producers often leave around half a reservoir's contents behind, trapped in tiny pores in the rock.

CO2 can help get it out. Injected underground, it bonds with the oil molecules trapped in the rock and acts like a detergent, washing the oil out. Some of the CO2 ends up trapped, or "sequestered," underground.

And that means, profits can be made from sales of more oil.

"I think we are going to see more and more of these CO2 enhanced oil recovery projects go forward because there, there is an economic case to be made for that," says Kipp Coddington, director of the University of Wyoming's Carbon Management Institute.

But there is a wrinkle. Unlike conventional capture and sequestration, in which carbon is just locked away instead of being reused, burning the oil produced through enhanced oil recovery can actually emit more carbon than gets sequestered underground.

Even so, Coddington says it's better than a regular barrel of oil.

"If you can produce a lower-carbon-footprint oil and displace a higher-carbon-footprint oil," he says, "why wouldn't you do that?"

Editor's Note: This story is part of an NPR Energy & Environment collaboration with member stations.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Paris agreement to curb climate change calls for a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels and their greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to renewable energy could help. But taken alone, that won't keep temperatures from rising to dangerous levels, so scientists and researchers all over the world are working on other technological solutions, and that's our topic today for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: We're talking about ways to trap carbon down here on Earth and keep it out of the atmosphere. And we're going to take a quick trip around North America to hear some of the ways it's being done, starting with NPR's Jeff Brady in Alberta, Canada.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: We're at an industrial site north of Edmonton for a grand opening.

(APPLAUSE)

BRADY: Usually there's a ribbon-cutting, but here dignitaries turn a big, yellow, metal wheel to mark the opening of the Quest Carbon Capture and Storage Project. This is part of Royal Dutch Shell's oil sands business. Turning gooey oil sands into crude emits a lot of carbon dioxide. But here, Shell captures some of that greenhouse gas before it escapes into the air.

TIM WIWCHAR: With heat, we flash off the CO2. It goes over into the compressor building just behind me.

BRADY: Project manager Tim Wiwchar says the CO2 is compressed into a liquid.

WIWCHAR: And it's piped 65 kilometers away, down our 12-inch pipeline, to our three injection wells.

BRADY: Then it's permanently stored in those wells, 1.4 miles underground. The technology in the Quest project has been around for a while, but it's still not cheap. Just this one plant cost almost a $1 billion to build and operate over the next decade. And for all that money, it captures a only about a third of the CO2. Shell CEO Ben van Beurden says at this point, carbon capture and storage is not profitable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN VAN BEURDEN: It creates maybe societal value, but it doesn't create commercial value. So we will need some sort of support mechanism to incentivize companies like ourselves to do that.

BRADY: Van Beurden says if there were a cost placed on carbon emissions, that could give oil companies the incentive they need to build more plants like Quest. Turns out just such a program is in the works, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced it in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RACHEL NOTLEY: Alberta will be phasing in a $30-per-ton, economy-wide carbon price.

(APPLAUSE)

BRADY: Shell supports this and says the price should be even higher. So why would an oil company want the government to increase its cost? The key is increasing costs the same for all oil companies. That would level the playing field so Shell isn't the only one building plants like this. Van Beurden says he hopes other companies will follow. He's even offering to share what Shell learned here but so far, no takers. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: I'm Lauren Sommer with KQED in California, where there's been a lot of excitement about capturing carbon. The state has a firm goal to cut carbon emissions. And six years ago, Keith Pronske was showing me a project he hoped would do just that. It was a power plant run by his company, Clean Energy Systems, that burns natural gas to make electricity, which creates carbon pollution. But his idea was to capture the carbon and put it underground to permanently trap it in rock layers underneath this dusty lot in the Central Valley.

KEITH PRONSKE: This is about changing the way that power is produced. If you bring the carbon up, use it and put it back is the basic idea.

SOMMER: It was meant to be a model project, a shining example of zero-emission energy. But that was six years ago.

PRONSKE: Well, it's been, I'd say, a wild ride, and we've had a few bumps.

SOMMER: When I met with Pronske last month, his plan had stalled. He tried to find a utility that would buy electricity from his plants, but the power is more expensive because he also has to cover the cost of burying the carbon. Utilities just weren't interested. Other carbon capture projects aren't faring any better. The federal government offered more than $3 billion in grants, but these projects are big and complicated, and they had to convince doubters who worry about environmental impacts. Many projects have been canceled altogether.

PRONSKE: The real issue is getting across this Valley of Death of how do we get these first plants built?

SOMMER: So some projects are looking to improve their economics. They make money off the carbon by using it.

STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: I'm Stephanie Joyce in Wyoming. Carbon capture and sequestration may be the gold standard for carbon management. But there's an alternative, if counterintuitive, way to sequester carbon; enhanced oil recovery, which is exactly what it sounds like. Oil is hard to get out of the ground, but carbon dioxide can help get that out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Once delivered to the field, the CO2 is injected through a well and down into the reservoir.

JOYCE: That's from a promotional video for Denbury Resources, one of the country's biggest enhanced oil recovery companies. The CO2 bonds with the oil molecules trapped in the rock and acts like a detergent, washing the oil out. The oil comes up to the surface, but some of the CO2 ends up trapped, sequestered underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIPP CODDINGTON: I think we are going to see more and more of these CO2 enhanced oil recovery projects go forward because there, there is an economic case to be made for that.

JOYCE: That's Kipp Coddington, head of the University of Wyoming's Carbon Management Institute. There's an economic case because that oil can be sold for money, but there's an accounting wrinkle. Burning the oil produced through enhanced oil recovery can actually emit more carbon than is sequestered. Even so, Coddington says it's better than a regular old barrel of oil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CODDINGTON: If you can produce a lower-carbon-footprint oil and displace a higher-carbon-footprint oil, why wouldn't you do that? I mean, it's still progress.

JOYCE: But the question is not whether it's progress, but whether it's enough progress to meet the country's CO2 reduction goals.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: I'm Leigh Paterson from Inside Energy, also in Wyoming, a state that relies heavily on jobs and revenue from coal mining. So figuring out what to do with captured carbon is important here, whether it's used for enhanced oil recovery or something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT MEAD: I can't wait to see what great minds come up with to reimagine CO2.

PATERSON: That's Wyoming governor Matt Mead announcing the location of a carbon testing lab funded mostly by the state and a Denver-based utility. The goal? To turn harmful CO2 emissions into building blocks for useful products. Captured CO2 is already sold to make fertilizer, dry ice and plastics. It can even be used to carbonate your soda. It all sounds great, says Simon Bennett, an analyst for the International Energy Agency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMON BENNETT: Technology gets provided, consumerism will do the rest. And that's a very, very attractive thing.

PATERSON: But Bennett points out that the demand for this kind of carbon is still really small. According to the IEA, the industrial market for captured CO2 is around 200 million tons per year. In comparison, global CO2 emissions from energy use in 2013 were around 175 times that. And to better those odds, researchers at the University of Wyoming are working on improving technologies that remove the carbon from coal to turn it into things like methanol, an ingredient in paints and plastics. For Mark Northam, the director of the School of Energy Resources, this would change the state's future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK NORTHAM: Twenty years from now, I would say fewer mines, more industry, the railcars full of products rather than coal cars hauling lumps of coal to power plants.

PATERSON: But finding the time, money and the political will to advance carbon capture technology are all serious barriers to preparing it for prime time. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.