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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?

Widener Law School posts videos and presentations from its landmark shale gas conference

On September 27, I had the privilege of serving as a panelist at Widener University Law School in Harrisburg for a first-of-its-kind conference on sustainability and Marcellus Shale development.

Widener has posted videos from the conference by panel as well as speaker presentations.  They are all worth viewing.

I was the last speaker on the Environmental Sustainability panel.  The portion of the video containing my presentation of The Business Case for Sustainable Gas Development begins at about the 39:55 mark and goes to about 53:20, and is followed by the question and answer period.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

CCS lags still further as we race to the climate abyss

If greenhouse emissions continue their inexorable rise, temperatures across more than 80 percent of the earth will soon - within 34 years, in some cases - rise to levels with no recorded precedent.  In that radically different climate, “the coldest year in the future will be warmer than the hottest year in the past”, forever changing life as we know it.

We are already, for example, taking the “perma” out of permafrost and acidifying the oceans, with potentially unimaginable consequences.

The outlook from history’s largest uncontrolled chemistry experiment – the deliberate carbonization of our atmosphere - is increasingly grim.  And the policy response to deploying urgently-needed climate-saving technologies continues to be anemic at best – indeed, perversely, self-destructively moribund.

This point has been brought home yet again by a new report from The Global CCS Institute.  The Global Status of CCS 2013  finds that despite the fact that the International Energy Agency has declared that “urgent” and “decisive actions” from governments are needed now to move deployment of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) beyond the demonstration phase, the number of large-scale CCS projects has fallen to 65 from 75 over the past year.  Since last year, the report said five projects have been canceled, one reduced in size and seven postponed, while only three have been added.

The leader in CCS technology is the United States, the report says, although that is mostly because of the use of carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery. Otherwise, the American CCS program is lagging, and there are more questions than answers about CCS’ viability as a climate mitigation tool.

The report sums up the situation: 
To effectively mitigate climate change and provide energy security, there is an urgent need to progress carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration projects around the world…It is vital that CCS is included in a portfolio of low–carbon technologies to tackle climate change at least cost.
The report identifies 6 “musts” for CCS deployment:
  1. Implement sustained policy support that includes long-term commitments to climate change mitigation and strong market–based mechanisms that ensure CCS is not disadvantaged.
  2. Boost short-term support for the implementation of demonstration projects. This will require targeted financial support measures that enable first mover projects to progress faster through development planning into construction and provide necessary support during operations.
  3. Implement measures to deal with the remaining critical regulatory uncertainties, such as long-term liabilities.
  4. Continue strong funding support for CCS research and development activities and encourage collaborative approaches to knowledge sharing across the CCS community.
  5. Create a positive pathway for CCS demonstration by advancing plans for storage site selection.
  6. Encourage the efficient design and development of transportation infrastructure through shared hub opportunities to become ‘trunk lines’ for several carbon dioxide capture projects. 
Items 2, 3, 5, and 6 were embodied in the Pennsylvania CCS model, an innovative and comprehensive approach aimed at early, commercial-scale CCS deployment that was developed four years ago in partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative. I was privileged to lead the Commonwealth’s effort. 

The network approach that we pioneered has recently been embraced by other nations, and The Global CCS Institute has underscored its potential power – and its necessity.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

UCS publishes superb new report on the fracking debate

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy has published a superb – and blunt - new report, "Toward an Evidence-Based Fracking Debate: Science, Democracy, and Community Right to Know in Unconventional Oil and Gas Development," that examines the current state of the science on fracking risk as well as the barriers that prevent citizens from learning what they need to know to help their communities make evidence-based decisions.

The Executive Summary encapsulates the situation succinctly: 
(T)he dizzying pace of unconventional oil and gas development has limited the time available for researchers to adequately study its impacts. Scientific unknowns about some of the impacts of development have converged with a lack of comprehensive legal requirements and interference in the science and policy processes by special interests.
The confluence of conflicted politicians, biased or unavailable science, and misinformation has produced a noisy information landscape that too often hinders citizens seeking reliable information and erects hurdles for communities seeking evidence-based decisions…
The report discusses these barriers—a lack of transparency, misinformation and interference in developing the science need to fully understand risks, inadequate governance at both state and Federal levels, legal loopholes and limitations, and a noisy public dialogue—and offers strong recommendations to help overcome them.

For example, the report calls for three essential components that would go a long way toward transparency and providing the building blocks for a strong scientific foundation to develop needed understanding:   
  • Baseline studies of air, water, and soil quality before drilling begins;
  • Monitoring studies during and after extraction activities;
  • The chemical composition, volume, and concentration of the chemicals used in their operations.

UCS will hold a webinar on October 17  to present the report, and its fracking information toolkit. Register for the webinar through this link.

The report is a notable addition to a growing body of work by UCS on unconventional oil and gas development. It accompanies the toolkit and videos from its July, 2013 forum on fracking held in Los Angeles in which I participated.

Monday, October 7, 2013

PA must be smarter about regulating natgas compressor stations

While burning natural gas for electricity generation can provide substantial reductions in air pollution when compared to coal, the transmission of gas to market is a growing source of local air pollution in Pennsylvania - a situation that is both needless and avoidable.

This must-read article by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Don Hopey discusses how the 450 (and growing) natural gas compressor stations in the Keystone State are regulated individually - rather than aggregated and regulated collectively - in a way that avoids subjecting them to more stringent Federal air emission requirements.  That results, according to the article, is situations like this:
Two years ago, the Clean Air Council appealed a state decision to grant individual permits to a Marcellus Shale gas production facility and 10 gas compressor stations linked to it by pipelines, all in Washington County. Collectively those 11 facilities, all owned by MarkWest Liberty Midstream LLC, can emit more than 900 tons of nitrogen oxides a year -- or more than three times the amount emitted by U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson steel mill in Braddock, which is designated a major source.
This wasn't always the case, as the article notes:
In Pennsylvania, the DEP adopted an aggregation policy in December 2010, during the Rendell administration, that focused on interdependency when considering shale gas facilities' emissions. But by October 2011 the Corbett administration had put in place a new policy that de-emphasized dependency in favor of geographic proximity.
Exposing local residents to these major sources of smog-inducing air pollution is a threat to public health and the industry's social license to operate.  The air quality benefits of a switch from coal to gas should not be negated by short-sighted policy about gas transmission.  A smart aggregation policy that recognizes the obvious is the first step that Pennsylvania must re-take.  Then it must require Best Available Control Technology on all natgas compression equipment.