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Will oil companies become carbon capture ones?


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I pose this question in the larger context of “how we will get from here to there” (that is, from a carbon-intensive economy to a more efficient, low-carbon intensity economy). Recognizing that carbon capture and sequestration will likely be one of many approaches to staying within our carbon budget, we should look at the potential pivot in the oil, gas, and chemical industries from a major source of carbon emissions to a major player in capturing and storing those emissions.

Energy and chemical companies are in fact well-positioned to lead in CCS research and deployment. Two quick examples from around the web, then a couple of comments from me.

First, Kevin Bullis at MIT Technology Review on in-house geophysics expertise at Shell needed for CCS:

Smit [Vice President of Exploration Technology at Shell] says that Shell’s efforts to understand geophysics could play an important role in such a scenario. And if it is necessary to pump carbon dioxide underground to deal with climate change, he says, no one has a better head start on knowing how to do this than oil companies. He notes that there are still big questions about carbon capture and storage, or CCS—including how long the carbon dioxide can be stored. But Shell’s experience in characterizing reservoirs could help answer those questions. “Shell doesn’t have all the answers,” he says, “but it’s not starting from scratch.”

And second, a look at who owns the intellectual property and holds patents for CCS:

Exxon, you may or may not be surprised to hear, is by far the biggest owner of patents for carbon capture and storage. In fact it holds more than twice as many patents as its nearest rival, Shell, according to a report by independent UK think tank Chatham House.

As the authors note, oil companies are active in CCS partly because their enhanced oil recovery knowledge – such as injecting CO2 into the earth to extract oil – dovetails neatly with the ‘storage’ part of CCS.

But Exxon also ranks very highly for the four patent categories related to ‘capture’, too: fifth for adsorbent methods, first for absorbent and solvent, and second for membranes. Big oil peers BP, Shell and ConocoPhilips also also in some of these categories, but appear noticeably fewer times.

I think the pivot makes sense if you think of oil and gas companies as energy services companies: those that will make money pulling out a carbon-rich fuel or by storing carbon underground (assuming there is a market for capturing and storing carbon or policies require that this happens). It also makes sense if you recognize that energy companies employ armies of engineers and scientists who are experts at the processes and mechanics necessary to separate carbon and store materials underground.

Of course, there are many questions and challenges with CCS. CCS can be an energy-intensive process – can we figure out ways to capture carbon without spending a lot of energy to do so? How long can we store carbon underground? And can we fit all of the pieces together on a large-scale and roll it out to power plants?

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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