Can big oil jump-start CCS? Expanding enhanced oil recovery could absorb decades’ worth of U.S. coal-plant CO2 emissions | Global CCS Institute

Just how big is the potential to sequester power-plant CO2 emissions into the U.S. oil patch?

In a word, “vast,” says a recent report released last month by MIT and The University of Texas at Austin that evaluated the capacity of the oil sector to pump CO2 into ageing wells to boost oil recovery, a process known as enhanced oil recovery, or EOR.

Aligning oil-producing areas with potential supplies of power-plant CO2, the researchers identified a variety of geographies that could accept an estimated 15 years or more of current, total CO2 output from U.S. coal plants, or approximately 3,500 gigawatt-years-equivalent of CO2.

That’s a potentially huge wedge to remove from the country’s climate challenge, given that coal plants account for about 30% of total US CO2 emissions.

(Jump to the bottom for links to the report and related resources.)

What’s more, domestic U.S. oil output would surge. The report estimates that, using the full CO2 output of coal-fired power plants to drive more petroleum from oil reservoirs, an additional 3 million barrels per day could be produced by 2030. That would be a 50 per cent increase over current domestic output.

The promise of scaling up CCS to expand EOR is nothing short of tantalizing. Near term, there is no larger potential source of commercial demand for CO2. The U.S. needs more domestic oil and the resulting economics could substantially subsidize the scaling up of CCS technology.

To be sure, widespread adoption of combining EOR-CCS faces major hurdles. The report names: a lack of CO2 transport and injection infrastructure; regulations remain underdeveloped at best; and there are scant and inconsistent incentives to match up supply and demand of CO2. Each of these shortcomings, the authors conclude, could be overcome with better government coordination.

There’s a long way to go. To get to the levels imagined by the report – that EOR could absorb a full year’s worth of coal plant CO2 output for 15 years – the industry has a long way to go. At its current scale, the industry could only handle 3 percent of that amount.

Here’s how the industry looks today, by that measure:

  • Demand for CO2, from current EOR operations – EOR uses about 115 million metric tons (MT) of CO2 per year currently.  Of this, 65 million MT are “new”,  rather than recycled CO2 being re-injected. This “new” CO2 comes mostly from natural geological CO2 reservoirs, and is pumped to oil wells via a network of pipelines.
  • Supply of CO2, from coal-fired power plants – Coal-fired power plants in the U.S. produce about 2,000 million MT of CO2. As a share of the total, EOR’s current demand (65 million MT of CO2) amounts to 3 per cent. Put another way, EOR’s appetite for CO2 could be met today with the emissions from approximately 10 gigawatt electric (GWe) of high-efficiency (supercritical) baseload coal power plants capacity, according to the report.

For a deeper dive into the MIT Univ. of Texas study, along with the research papers underlying the report, and other related material, follow the links below:

  • The report, summarizing the findings of a conference held in June last year, was published in May 2011 and can be downloaded from the Univ. of Texas here. You can view the individual academic presentations given at the July 2010 meeting at the homepage of MIT Energy Initiative, here.

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