Between Biden and climate investors, carbon storage gains ground

Source: By James Osborne, Houston Chroncile • Posted: Tuesday, June 8, 2021

FILE-- Carbon capture equipment at a generating station near Houston, with coal piled in the background, on Dec. 12, 2016. President Donald Trump is intent on repealing the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of former President Barack Obama?•s environmental legacy. Failure to replace it could invite lawsuits and, eventually, tougher rules. (Michael Stravato/The New York Times)
FILE– Carbon capture equipment at a generating station near Houston, with coal piled in the background, on Dec. 12, 2016. President Donald Trump is intent on repealing the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of former President Barack Obama?•s environmental legacy. Failure to replace it could invite lawsuits and, eventually, tougher rules. (Michael Stravato/The New York Times)MICHAEL STRAVATO/NYT

WASHINGTON – With President Joe Biden pushing carbon capture as an industry of the future, and oil and gas companies rushing to build up their climate bonafides, commercial scale carbon storage projects are fast on their way to getting built in the United States and abroad.

In the Midwest, San Antonio-based Valero and the investment firm BlackRock are lining up customers for a 12 million ton per year carbon storage site — the equivalent to the annual emissions of 2.6 million cars — to begin operation by the end of 2024. In a depleted gas field off the Dutch port of Rotterdam, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil are working to get a 2.5 million metric ton per year storage site completed, with a $2.5 billion subsidy from the Dutch government.

And in Houston, the oil and gas capital of the world, Exxon is trying to sell political leaders on a more ambitious, yet less certain project that would capture massive volumes of carbon dioxide emitted by chemical plants and refineries along the Houston Ship Channel and pipe them into old oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico, with a capacity of 100 million tons per year.

No one has broken ground yet. But for oil and gas companies, under pressure from investors to explain how they’ll make money in a world with vastly reduced carbon emissions, carbon capture offers a potential lifeline, not only for the companies, but also a Texas Gulf Coast facing substantial loss of business to electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels.

“Fifteen years ago the leadership in (carbon capture) was from coal fired power plants, and interestingly enough the oil and gas guys, who frankly had a lot more capacity, were just kind of watching it,” said Charles McConnell, a former assistant secretary of energy who now leads the University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy. “Now they feel a much more existential threat to their business, so you have different players, more capable players, with balance sheets.”

Roughly 40 carbon capture projects are in various stages of development around the United States, according to the Low Carbon Task Force, a think tank that advocates for clean energy development. Those projects are small, taking highly concentrated streams of carbon dioxide sources such as the production of biofuels and certain chemicals, then storing greenhouse gas underground to earn a $50 per ton federal tax credit.

For instance, the Iowa-based startup Summit Agricultural Group is partnering with a group of midwestern biofuel producers to build a 10 million-ton -per-year carbon storage site by 2024, allowing emissions from their plants to be stored underground and reducing the overall carbon footprint of their fuels.

But if industrial sectors such as cement manufacturing and oil refining — which produce emissions with lower concentrations of carbon dioxide and thus have higher capture costs —are going to join in, they will likely need greater incentive. Exxon, for instance, is advocating for doubling the tax credit to $100 a ton in meetings with the Biden administration and Democratic and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, said Erik Oswald, vice president of strategy development at the Texas oil giant.

Exxon CEO Darren Woods “has been up in Washington and talking to people,” he said. “You have a spectrum of views. There’s a minority who say oil and gas shouldn’t be a part of the conversation. And you still have people around that think climate doesn’t need to be addressed. But there’s a big center of Democrats and Republicans looking at this favorably.”

Among those leading the effort is Biden, whose American Jobs Plan calls for a 13-fold increase in U.S. carbon capture capacity by the mid-2030s – about 325 million tons of carbon dioxide a year or 6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — said Lee Beck, international director of Clean Air Task Force.

That might not sound like much, but the United Nations and the International Energy Agency have labeled carbon capture as critical to decarbonizing industrial sectors. Technology developed along the Gulf Coast and in Europe could eventually be exported around the world.

A bipartisan group of Senate and House members has introduced a series of bills this year to boost carbon storage, whether by increasing the tax credit to $85 per ton or creating a direct payment system to allow companies without massive tax bills to develop carbon capture and storage systems. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat from Dallas, and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., are among those sponsoring a bill that would allow the Department of Energy to share the cost of building pipelines and other infrastructure needed to move carbon dioxide to storage facilities.

“Biden’s jobs plan is the biggest proposal to support (carbon capture) in the world, more than any other government,” Beck said. “It’s unprecedented momentum.”

The technology is especially critical for the greater Houston area, which includes the largest concentration of refining and petrochemical facilities in the country.

Texas was slow to jump on the carbon capture bandwagon, allowing other energy producing states such as Wyoming and Louisiana to get a head start on permitting and attracting developers. But with so much emissions coming from the Texas Gulf Coast and an energy sector with decades of geologic and infrastructure expertise, the region is primed to become the staging ground for a massive new global industry worth tens of billions of dollars a year.

Last month, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm chose a hydrogen plant in La Porte run by Air Liquide, one of the companies exploring carbon capture at its facilities, for her first trip outside Washington. And the University of Houston is leading a federally-funded consortium of universities and private sector companies examining how to speed the transition to carbon capture.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a better place for it. The players are here. The emissions are here,” said McConnell of the University of Houston. “At the end of the day, a decarbonization program for a port in Rotterdam or a Houston Ship Channel is not going to affect global emissions that much. The real value is for (carbon capture) technology to be commercially viable so you have deployment overseas. That’s the opportunity for U.S. companies.”

Most of the attention is on Exxon’s $100 billion offshore proposal, which has attracted the support of politicians as varied as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Governor Greg Abbott. After Exxon’s April announcement, Abbott tweeted “Texas is an energy leader thanks to innovative companies like @exxonmobil who invest in our communities and seek a cleaner future.”

The announcement, however, did little to soothe concerns among Exxon investors that the company is not moving on climate change as quickly as competitors such as the British oil major BP, which has pledged to cut the carbon intensity of energy it sells 50 percent by mid-century. Last week, shareholders voted against Exxon executives’ picks for independent board seats in favor of more climate-focused representatives selected by the hedge fund Little Engine No. 1.

Asked if that vote would change Exxon’s approach to the Houston project, Oswald described his company’s efforts in carbon capture as part of a long-term strategy to lower emissions while maintaining profits.

“We’re moving as fast as we can on this thing,” he said. “As the energy transition unfolds we’re looking out at all the various markets that are going to grow out of that space. And one of the things that’s going to happen is the value of carbon is going to increase. You’ve already seen that in carbon markets around the world.”

james.osborne@chron.com

 

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