I started my three-part Q&A with John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force by focusing on Canada’s leadership in CCS. In this installment, Thompson outlines the problems posed by focusing on CCS liability in advance of scaling the technology.
Outside of the Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana oilfields, questions over liability of sequestered CO2 have distracted the discussion, and arguably slowed or even stymied projects. Do you see liability fears as a barrier?
My bias has always been to deemphasize those things because, while important and necessary, they’re not urgent at this stage. As soon as you start getting the incentives and a few pilots off the ground, then the people that matter come to the table and start figuring out what really works and what doesn’t work, including for liability.
Liability risks are very important, but they’re second tier at this stage. It’s a chicken and egg problem: there isn’t a reason to worry about these risks if we can’t develop the technology. It’s like deciding, in 1914, what are the speed limits and color of signs for the interstate highway system.
I’m a firm believer that the regulations on this have to evolve as we learn from projects. We have much of the necessary expertise to get these right, again, with the EOR industry, which is very comfortable with liability.
So a lot of the things that we’ve done in the United States — Class VI rules for saline injection, we’ve done by learning from rules developed for Class II wells for EOR. Certain states have accepted liability while others that have chosen different paths — all that’s well and good, and will become more important and will evolve as soon as we get real projects on the ground.
Do you see a difference in the liability outlook for CCS in oil formations versus in saline injection?
There is an advantage for the first round of CCS development to put CO2 into old oil fields instead of saline sites. EOR provides certainty and revenue needed to finance projects. The likelihood is strong that the cap rock must be pretty good. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have oil there or natural gas in the first place. The issue is whether you’ve punctured that geology with old wells, and whether those old wells are closed properly and won’t become a pathway to the surface. Saline is critical too, but often less is known about the geology and so more studies are needed.
The allure of saline injections, presumably, is that the geology is more common, which would minimize the CO2 transport networks. Isn’t that a good reason to explore saline first?
The challenge with saline is that everybody who has a power plant or a large industrial source wants to minimize the pipeline costs and inject directly beneath their site. So how do you set up a system that actually begins to develop the best saline sites first and discourages people from, say, injecting under their own property where geology might not be as good just because it’s the least costly option?
One of the things that we think would be really helpful on the saline side is something we call a geologic storage utility. It would be a utility charged with handling the CO2 in a one or two‑state area and figures out where the best sites are first and helps build out the pipelines, so that we actually develop what’s easiest to characterize, and avoid black eyes.
Speaking of black eyes, given rising public opposition to natural gas hydrofracking in the US, do you worry about resistance to CO2 injection trials?
Resistance will depend on the site and the scale and a lot of other things, but the risk is rising. And certainly, the last thing we want is one failed site — a CO2 leak — to discourage the whole industry. To reduce resistance, people need to feel the project is safe. They need to believe it is worthwhile. This is a point where better education is needed. Quite simply, it’s game over for avoiding the worst aspects of climate change if CCS isn’t widely used. Fossil fuels use worldwide is projected to rise 50 per cent by 2035. CCS is effective because it can capture 90 per cent of the CO2 from stationary sources — new, existing, gas, or coal.
In that sense EOR can turn the CCS story into a potential success story – it helps recover more oil – shifting the focus away from worry over what CO2 does in the ground. Is the EOR potential big enough to drive significant carbon capture investment?
I think that’s really the interesting, fun fact here. Policymakers don’t necessarily understand that if you want to really reach the full potential of domestic oil production in the lower 48, particularly in Texas, and Mississippi, you’ve got to capture CO2 from power plants.
We’re running out of low-cost natural sources of CO2. To really develop the residual oil zones that are in the watery layers below the traditional producing wells, you need high volumes of CO2 and it will have to come from industry. Some of that will come from low‑cost sources such as natural gas processing and chemical manufacturer refineries. But ultimately, it’s going to take power plants.
Thanks John. We will continue our conversation tomorrow with a focus on the Clean Air Task Force’s plans to spur collaboration between the utilities and the oil sector in the US and China to accelerate the development of CCS.
- A recipe to jumpstart CCS in the US: the rewards of collaborating with China – A conversation with John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force (Part III)