Are Environmentalists and the Fossil Fuel Industry Calling a Truce?

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There is a deal on the table in Washington with the potential to create a truce between two sides that have been at war for many decades. The deal takes the form of the Waxman-Markey bill – the framework for federal climate law now moving through Congress.

While it is still uncertain whether climate legislation will pass this year, the draft bill contains a formula for compromise that could create an unprecedented handshake between the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists and unite them for the first time in the battle to control greenhouse gases.

Testimony on the Waxman-Markey bill kicks off today, Earth Day. This one should be recognized for the perplexing and difficult day that it has become: a bittersweet moment in which the contours of political compromise have become stark for all concerned; and a defining moment in which both sides in the historic war are weighing painful agreements.

For the fossil fuel industry, it’s a mandated cap on carbon that will squeeze roughly 80% of current emissions from the economy by 2050; and for environmentalists, it’s accepting the necessity of a still speculative technology called carbon capture and storage (CCS). Many greens have come around to the opinion that CCS is fundamental to solving global climate change, and the fossil fuel industry realizes it needs federal help developing the technology in order to stay in business.

So at this legislative crossroads, the nation is on the verge of deciding to store vast quantities of CO2 – not in the atmosphere any longer – but in the Earth instead. It is something worth remarking on this Earth Day. 

President Obama campaigned promising to support "clean coal" – the industry messaging term for CCS – and he has been true to his word, though many had hoped his position would change once he won the election. Steven Chu, the new energy secretary, sees no alternative to developing CCS as soon as possible, and Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey have given a prominent place to the technology in the Clean Energy title of the bill they drafted with help from the business-NGO collaboration USCAP.

Most telling of the tectonic shift taking place, however, is that the Reality Coalition – formed by leading environmental organizations under the leadership of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection – has called a partial cease-fire. It’s pulling the TV spots that have been informing the public "there is no such thing as clean coal" from the airwaves, in an effort to get four-square behind securing passage of the climate bill known formally as the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

The acceptance of CCS is more than a political accommodation designed to buy off the coal states and secure the votes of Blue Dog Democrats; it is a sudden and sobering admission that the environmental problem called global warming is in need of a modern industrial solution. There appears to be no politically palatable way to ratchet down the insatiable global appetite for energy far enough to substantially reduce our dependence on fossil fuels in the foreseeable future, renewables and energy efficiency notwithstanding

What this also means is that the oil and gas industries are going to be partners in the effort to save the planet, for without them geologic storage of CO2 will not be possible. They are the only ones capable of managing the task at a scale big enough to make a difference.

In order for CCS to reduce emissions by one "wedge" (1 Gt/a C) – the world will have to be storing 190 billion cubic feet of CO2 a day (Bcf/D). This is not a statistic culled from a naysaying green report, but from an illuminating article that appeared in the Journal of Petroleum Technology called "Geologic CO2 Storage – Can the Oil and Gas Industry Help Save the Planet." 

The article catalogs the enormous logistical challenges on the CCS road ahead. What does 190 Bcf/D of geologic storage mean, exactly? Steven Bryant, the author of the paper, says it will require replicating the current fossil energy infrastructure all over again.

Thus, from the point of view of fluids moving in the subsurface, storing one wedge of CO2 in deep saline aquifers or depleted oil and gas reservoirs would be at the same magnitude as the current global oil business.

From the point of view of fluids moving in surface facilities, transporting 1 Gt/a C from sources such as coal-fired power plants to injection wellheads would be comparable to the current global natural-gas business.

While a daunting challenge, the author believes it is not beyond the oil industry’s capability to meet it, and in fact he says it has "an unrivaled technical advantage." Still, the industry would need to invest about $1 trillion a year in CCS – an amount equal to what it spends now to renew and maintain hydrocarbon production. But the cost might be less of a prohibitive factor than the simple logistics. Bryant points out:

One way to store one wedge (1 Gt/a C) would be to retrofit CO2-capture and -storage facilities on one 1,000-MW coal-fired power plant every week – for 12 years. Even if each project were a simple off-the-shelf design, this would be a massive undertaking.

Bryant’s analysis includes consideration of the depth of the global reliance on fossil fuels, and he, like many others since, comes to the conclusion that while CO2 storage by itself cannot reduce emissions sufficiently, without it the world probably does not have a chance to reach the ambitious mitigation targets recommended by science.

When CO2 is captured and prepared for storage, it enters what scientists call a supercritical phase: it behaves both like a liquid and a gas. Injected far beneath the surface of the earth, it remains buoyant, seeking to escape. Most projected underground storage formations remain uncharacterized – nobody knows what’s really down there — so no one is quite sure whether the CO2 will stay put.

This means that risk assessments of the geologic formations with only minimal available information is crucial to successful storage. Bryant argues that the oil industry is familiar with the challenge, for even "hydrocarbon reservoirs are often poorly characterized" but the industry has developed strategies for managing the circumstance. Similarly, the oil industry is on the leading edge of monitoring storage sites for leaks and lateral migrations of CO2 deposits.

It should come as no surprise that if the fossil industry must double the size of its infrastructure and its capital development expenditures in order to accommodate a wedge of CO2 storage, it is also going to need to double its work force. That, Bryant says, is the single largest logistical hurdle in the way of success.

Ramping up storage to the level needed to make a difference would require as many people as now work in the oil and gas business. Yet oil and gas operators and service companies are already scrambling to find qualified staff for existing and planned E&P projects.

… it may prove the greatest obstacle to implementing CO2 storage rapidly at a large enough scale to make a difference. Even if the technical, economic, and social challenges described above are addressed successfully, and even if citizens decide they want real GHG mitigation and are prepared to pay for it, geologic storage will not happen without engineers and geoscientists.

They are the ones who must identify sites, design processes, certify permits, implement injection, interpret measurements, and carry out myriad other tasks associated with moving hundreds of Bcf/D of CO2 from sources to storage formations.

It may be premature to call these potential new jobs in the CCS field as "green jobs", and Bryant does not consider whether opportunities in the incumbent energy industries will compete for workforce attention with the clean energy sector.

He does, however, conclude by recognizing that even though the oil industry may be "uniquely qualified to help save the planet," it’s ability to profit from CO2 storage will not help its image.

Consumers pay the industry once for hydrocarbons to meet their personal transportation needs, and in the process they produce a quarter of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. In its most likely implementation, CO2 storage would require consumers to pay the industry again.

Indeed, geologic carbon storage will introduce a new kind of relationship for the oil and gas industry. Bryant predicts, "a partnership with coal producers, the transporters of coal, and power generating companies."

And another party he did not foresee: environmentalists.