After decades of sowing doubt about climate change and its causes, the fossil fuel industry is now shifting to a new strategy: presenting itself as the source of solutions. This repositioning includes rebranding itself as a “carbon management industry.”
This strategic pivot was on display at the Glasgow climate summit and at a Congressional hearing in October 2021, where CEOs of four major oil companies talked about a “lower-carbon future.” That future, in their view, would be powered by the fuels they supply and technologies they could deploy to remove the planet-warming carbon dioxide their products emit – provided they get sufficient government support.
Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, aims to capture carbon dioxide as it emerges from smokestacks either at power plants or from industrial sources. So far, CCS at U.S. power plants has been a failure.
Seven large-scale CCS projects have been attempted at U.S. power plants, each with hundreds of millions of dollars of government subsidies, but these projects were either canceled before they reached commercial operation or were shuttered after they started due to financial or mechanical troubles. There is only one commercial-scale CCS power plant operation in the world, in Canada, and its captured carbon dioxide is used to extract more oil from wells – a process called “enhanced oil recovery.”
Another method would directly remove carbon dioxide from the air. Oil companies like Occidental Petroleum and ExxonMobil are seeking government subsidies to develop and deploy such “direct air capture” systems. However, one widely recognized problem with these systems is their immense energy requirements, particularly if operating at a climate-significant scale, meaning removing at least 1 gigaton – 1 billion tons – of carbon dioxide per year.
That’s about 3% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences projects a need to remove 10 gigatons per year by 2050, and 20 gigatons per year by century’s end if decarbonization efforts fall short.
The only type of direct air capture system in relatively large-scale development right now must be powered by a fossil fuel to attain the extremely high heat for the thermal process.
Another direct air capture system, employing a solid sorbent, uses somewhat less energy, but companies have struggled to scale it up beyond pilots. There are ongoing efforts to develop more efficient and effective direct air capture technologies, but some scientists are skeptical about its potential. One study describes enormous material and energy demands of direct air capture that the authors say make it “unrealistic.” Another shows that spending the same amount of money on clean energy to replace fossil fuels is more effective at reducing emissions, air pollution and other costs.
The cost of scaling up
A 2021 study envisions spending $1 trillion a year to scale up direct air capture to a meaningful level. Bill Gates, who is backing a direct air capture company called Carbon Engineering, estimated that operating at climate-significant scale would cost $5.1 trillion every year. Much of the cost would be borne by governments because there is no “customer” for burying waste underground.
As lawmakers in the U.S. and elsewhere consider devoting billions more dollars to carbon capture, they need to consider the consequences.
The captured carbon dioxide must be transported somewhere for use or storage. A 2020 study from Princeton estimated that 66,000 miles of carbon dioxide pipelines would have to be built by 2050 to begin to approach 1 gigaton per year of transport and burial.
The issues with burying highly pressurized CO2 underground will be analogous to the problems that have faced nuclear waste siting, but at enormously larger quantities. Transportation, injection and storage of carbon dioxide bring health and environmental hazards, such as the risk of pipeline ruptures, groundwater contamination and the release of toxins, all of which particularly threaten the disadvantaged communities historically most victimized by pollution.
Bringing direct air capture to a scale that would have climate-significant impact would mean diverting taxpayer funding, private investment, technological innovation, scientists’ attention, public support and difficult-to-muster political action away from the essential work of transitioning to non-carbon energy sources.
A proven method: trees, plants and soil
Rather than placing what we consider to be risky bets on expensive mechanical methods that have a troubled track record and require decades of development, there are ways to sequester carbon that build upon the system we already know works: biological sequestration.
Per ton of carbon dioxide sequestered, biological sequestration costs about one-tenth as much as current mechanical methods. And it offers valuable side-benefits by reducing soil erosion and air pollution, and urban heat; increasing water security, biodiversity and energy conservation; and improving watershed protection, human nutrition and health.
To be clear, no carbon removal approach – neither mechanical nor biological – will solve the climate crisis without an immediate transition away from fossil fuels. But we believe that relying on the fossil fuel industry for “carbon management” will only further delay that transition.
President Joe Biden ordered a release of oil from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve on Nov. 23, 2021, as a part of a coordinated effort with five other countries to tamp down rising fuel prices. The U.S. plans to tap 50 million barrels of crude oil in the coming months, while the other nations – the U.K., India, Japan, Korea and China – are said to be releasing about 11 million barrels in total.
Arab oil-exporting states led by Saudi Arabia had cut supply to the world market because of Western support for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Oil prices quadrupled, resulting in major economic damage to the U.S. and other countries. This also shook the average American, who had grown used to cheap oil.
The oil crisis caused the U.S., Japan and 15 other advanced countries to form the International Energy Agency in 1974 to recommend policies that would forestall such events in the future. One of the agency’s key ideas was to create emergency petroleum reserves that could be drawn on in case of a severe supply disruption.
The Energy Policy and Conservation Act originally stipulated the reserve should hold up to 1 billion barrels of crude and refined petroleum products. Though it has never reached that size, the U.S. reserve is the largest in the world, with a maximum volume of 713.5 million barrels. It currently holds a little over 600 million barrels of crude oil.
Oil in the reserve is stored underground in a series of large underground salt domes in four locations along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana and is linked to major supply pipelines in the region.
Salt domes, formed when a mass of salt is forced upward, are a good choice for storage since salt is impermeable and has low solubility in crude oil. Most of the storage sites were acquired by the federal government in 1977 and became fully operational in the 1980s.
History of drawdowns
In the 1975 act, Congress specified that the reserve was intended to prevent “severe supply interruptions” – that is, actual oil shortages.
Over time, as the oil market has changed, Congress expanded the list of reasons for which the SPR could be tapped, such as domestic supply interruptions due to extreme weather.
Before the latest drawdown, more than 230 million barrels of crude oil had been released since the reserve’s creation. The amount of the November 2021 release, 50 million barrels, is the largest so far.
The third was a coordinated release by the International Energy Agency in 2011 as a result of supply disruptions from several oil-producing countries including Libya, then facing civil unrest during the Arab Spring. In all, the IEA coordinated a release of 60 million barrels of crude, half of which came from the U.S.
Biden’s decision to tap the reserve was similarly seen as political by Republicans because there’s no emergency shortage of supply. The White House said part of the release is an acceleration of planned sales approved by Congress, while the rest is an exchange that will return to the reserve over time.
Is the reserve still necessary?
Because the U.S. is today a net petroleum exporter, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve has entered a new era. Some of its original rationale and function – to be used in emergencies to ensure the U.S. has a steady supply of oil – are gone.
And efforts to reduce global carbon emissions and the use of oil – for example, with more electric cars and other vehicles on the road – will likely only reduce the need for such a reserve.
Indeed, Congress has recognized the reality that oil exports have been declining. It mandated annual sales from the reserve beginning in 2017 and extending through 2028 – for a total of 271 million barrels.
The White House has launched a new energy division of its Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and appointed Sally Benson, a well-known energy expert at Stanford University, to a high-level position to coordinate climate change policy.
The announcement, scheduled for Wednesday, illustrates that the White House is racing to fulfill President Biden’s ambitious commitments to combat climate change, particularly as Republicans ramp up their attacks on the administration over high gas prices ahead of the holiday season.
Thousands of rare forest honeybees that appear to be the last wild descendants of Britain’s native honeybee population have been discovered in the ancient woodlands of Blenheim Palace.
The newly discovered subspecies, or ecotype, of honeybee is smaller, furrier and darker than the honeybees found in managed beehives, and is believed to be related to the indigenous wild honeybees that foraged the English countryside for centuries. Until now, it was presumed all these bees had been completely wiped out by disease and competition from imported species.
The societal benefits of digitising natural history collections extends to global advancements in food security, biodiversity conservation, medicine discovery, minerals exploration, and beyond. A brand new, rigorous economic report predicts investing in digitising natural history museum collections could also result in a tenfold return.