With the union of Democrats and oil companies, has the time to capture carbon come?

WASHINGTON – Carbon dioxide was first captured and pumped underground on a commercial scale at a natural gas processing facility in Texas in 1972.

Almost half a century later, despite growing demand for the technology as world leaders seek to tackle climate change, carbon capture is still struggling to take hold. The number of projects in development around the world remains lower than it was 10 years ago, after companies that invested in carbon capture systems struggled to make a profit, despite billions of dollars. government grant dollars. Now, as Congress and President Joe Biden invest billions more in expanding carbon capture in the United States, and the oil and gas industry is increasingly on board, the capture industry carbon could have its last and best chance to develop.

“The next 10 years are absolutely crucial,” said Jessie Stolark, public policy manager at the Carbon Capture Coalition, a business group.

As scientists warn the world must start decarbonising immediately for the planet to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and avoid the worst consequences of climate change, the carbon capture industry faces a learning curve steep.

By some estimates, 50,000 carbon capture plants are needed globally by 2050 to both capture emissions and extract existing carbon from the atmosphere, at a cost of $ 10,000 billion. Currently, only 26 carbon capture plants are operating in the world.

And within the environmental community, there are many skeptics that such a scale is achievable within three decades.

“The timeline for building and making widespread carbon capture economically is not the timescale we need,” said Matthew Davis, League vice president of civic engagement. of Conservation Voters. “We currently have ready-made solutions to generate clean electricity. “

More expensive than wind turbines or solar panels, the promise of carbon capture has always been its ability to decarbonize sectors of the economy that are more difficult to electrify due to their high energy demand, particularly heavy industry or commercial aircraft. . At the same time, it could help save an oil industry that employs tens of thousands of Americans and is the economic backbone of states like Texas.

Many government officials believe they have little choice but to go ahead. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says in most scenarios the world will need to capture carbon to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would prevent change catastrophic climate. The International Energy Agency, which advises governments on energy supply, estimates that 15% of emission reductions will have to come from carbon capture.

“Carbon capture has been a political pillar for over a decade, since George W. Bush. The reasons why it’s fascinating is because it’s a lifeline for oil and coal and maybe natural gas in a low carbon future, ”said Michael Webber, professor. of Energy Resources at the University of Texas – Austin. “It’s going to be expensive and awkward, but the government has an obligation to invest because we’re going to need it.”

Governments in Europe and the United States are starting to invest more seriously in technology.

Congress increased tax credits for carbon capture projects in 2018 and is now considering further expansion to accelerate development. This has started to attract interest from oil and gas companies, as well as electricity companies, who maintain that the only thing holding back the technology is the relative lack of incentive from the government.

With most governments refraining from imposing fees or penalties for greenhouse gas emissions, companies are largely free to do so with minimal consequences, said Joe Blommaert, president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions.

“The value of carbon is not transparent right now,” he said. “We need to create that transparency so that you can let the market do its job as efficiently as possible. “

With no carbon levy on the horizon in the United States, companies must use a motley system of federal tax credits and grants to initiate carbon capture projects.

Yet increasing the tax credit in 2018 to $ 50 per tonne of carbon captured and stored, along with increasing pressure from investors to clean up emissions, has led to a new wave of carbon capture proposals.. An estimated 40 projects are in development, said Stolark, of the Carbon Capture Coalition. Among them are plans for a large carbon storage facility near Houston, with eleven companies, including Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Dow Chemical and Houston power company Calpine, expressing interest in developing the project.

But so far, none of these projects have the green light to start construction.

“These are complex projects to set up, and it will just take time for the market to understand better,” said Stolark.

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