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Friday, October 11, 2013

Can oil and gas companies help to save us from catastrophic climate change?

An executive of Royal Dutch Shell has said something this week that I've been suggesting for years - that oil and gas companies are well-suited to pioneer carbon capture and storage technology in the so-far losing battle to deploy the technology in the fight against our intentional carbonization of the atmosphere.

Oil and gas companies helping to save us from the effects of using their products?

Yes, for five reasons.

Kevin Bullis, writing for the on-line publication MIT Technology Review, reports on comments made by Dirk Smit, vice president of exploration technology at Royal Dutch Shell at a recent MIT conference.  Smith said that oil companies’ expertise in geophysics, in managing extremely large-scale operations, in characterizing geologic reservoirs, and in injecting CO2 for EOR operations could be keys to advancing CCS.

If you’re counting, Smit has identified four reasons.  I’ll add a fifth, based on my experience in leading Pennsylvania’s partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative that identified – four years ago – the most hopeful path to deploying CCS at commercial scale by establishing CCS networks.

The fifth reason why oil and gas companies can help advance CCS is that they already control a whole lot of the storage space that will be needed for commercial scale CCS. 

As I wrote in summarizing our work in 2010, we found that Pennsylvania has an estimated geologic capacity to store hundreds of years’ worth of carbon emissions at present rates, and that an integrated, commercial-scale CCS network could be safely developed. The network was not only feasible, but it would be cost-competitive compared to other CCS projects world-wide.

A fundamental barrier to developing that network – and CCS generally – is that geologic sequestration requires legal control of the geologic storage space.  And lots of it.  A rule of thumb used by the US Department of Energy is that one 500 megawatt power plant that captures 90% of its CO2 emissions over a 40-year operational life and that is injecting captured CO2 emissions into a 300-foot thick geologic storage formation will require 100 square miles of storage space. In Pennsylvania, property rights ownership is highly fragmented, and assembling storage rights – leasing or buying them - on that scale would be daunting.

But, as I noted then: 
In the future, the possibility of storing CO2 in deep shales (e.g. Marcellus shale once depleted of natural gas) should be pursued, as significant property rights are already being assembled by industry. 
Indeed, the natural gas industry has already leased the geologic space beneath as much as 10 million acres of Pennsylvania – a third of the entire state – and one sixth of the entire U.S. land mass. It is possible – there would need to be very extensive, site-specific analyses of the geology and the impact of fracking on storage potential – that oil and gas companies could not only apply their skills to develop CCS, but that they could also be the companies to perform the storage services.

Can oil and gas companies help to save us from catastrophic climate change? Yes.

Will they?

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