Technology removes greenhouse gases from atmosphere

Jordan Blum March 1, 2019

Sucking greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane out of the air to slow climate change seems like the stuff of science fiction, a fantastic idea dreamed up by some modern-day Jules Verne.

But the technology is here. And oil companies have begun investing to advance that technology and deploy it on a commercial scale.

Chevron, the nation’s second-largest oil company, and Houston’s Occidental Petroleum, one of the largest independents, this year became the first major oil companies to put their money into so-called negative emissions technologies with the goal of developing “direct air capture” factories that would remove carbon emissions from the air in places such as the Permian Basin in West Texas, and then use the captured CO2 in the oil-production process or as a recycled fuel additive.

The technology isn’t a silver bullet for solving climate change, but could become a key contributor to slowing global warming, along with systems that remove carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and the expansion of wind, solar and other renewable technologies. For the time being, the world is far from achieving the goals of the 2016 Paris climate accords, which aims to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Fred Krupp, president of the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, calls negative emission technologies, or NETs, an entirely new arsenal in the fight against climate change. Federal incentives, he said, would help speed their development.

“By deploying technology that removes existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” he said in a recent essay, “the world can boost its chances of keeping warming below 2 degrees and reduce the risk of catastrophe.”

So how does it work? It varies by company but, essentially, giant fans pull in air, which travels through a thin, chemical-coated plastic film that creates a chemical reaction with the carbon dioxide to create tiny pellets of calcium carbonate. The pellets can then be heated to create gaseous carbon dioxide streams for industrial uses.

CO2 factories

“You suck the air through a machine and — by the time it’s gone out the other end — it’s lost 80 percent of its CO2,” said Steve Oldham, chief executive of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company that has developed a pilot plant using direct air capture and plans to begin commercial operations by 2022

Commercializing the technology would require building plants at the cost of $300 million to $500 million, said Oldham. The plants would use a combination of existing technologies and look like a factory with a large array of fans. Each plant, depending on the size, would be able to remove several million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, The United States discharges more than 5 billion tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere each year.

“We’re focused on the significant challenge of removing the carbon that we’ve been putting in the atmosphere since about 1750,” the beginnings of the Industrial Age, said Oldham. “To do that, you need scale.”

Carbon capture, whether from smokestacks or tailpipes or directly from the atmosphere, is considered critical to the long-term future of oil and gas companies, whose operations and products are among the biggest producers of greenhouse gases and contributors to the rapidly-changing climate. Both Chevron and Occidental are backing Carbon Engineering, which began developing the technology a decade ago and built a pilot project in 2015.

On HoustonChronicle.com: For Big Oil, climate change looms large

The company grew from academic work on carbon management technologies by professors at the University of Calgary and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Microsoft founder Bill Gates is the small company’s most prominent investor.

For Chevron and Occidental, the potential payoff from their investment is more than just reducing their carbon footprint. Chevron, for example, wants to use the captured carbon dioxide to make cleaner fuels by replacing some of the crude and ethanol with the recycled carbon dioxide.

“We want to take that carbon and actually make a product,” said Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures. “We’ve got to be reliable, safe, affordable and ever-cleaner.”

Occidental, the largest Permian producer, uses vast quantities of carbon dioxide for a production process called enhanced oil recovery. Oxy injects carbon dioxide into aging reservoirs to force more oil from wells. The company uses 50 million tons of carbon dioxide annually for enhanced recovery. Its ultimate goal: put more carbon dioxide into the ground than it takes out in the form of fossil fuels.

“First and foremost, it’s to enhance Oxy’s profitability,” said Richard Jackson, who oversees the company’s venture capital arm, Oxy Low Carbon Ventures. “The second is to reduce atmosphere greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Best of both worlds

Direct air capture plants seem tailor-made for oil and gas basins, such as the Permian, said Carolyn Seto, research director in technology and innovation for the IHS Markit research firm. They not only help solve the problem of carbon missions, but also provide ready supplies of carbon dioxide for oilfield operations. The plants, she added, could be constructed from modular units, allowing them to be easily assembled, disassembled and moved throughout the oil and gs fields.

“You’re getting the best of both worlds,” said Oldham, the Carbon Engineering CEO. “You’re allowing the continued use of fossil fuels while offsetting the carbon released.”

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