Editor’s Note: Sally Benson is co-director of Stanford Energy’s Precourt Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
For years, debate has raged on about how businesses can help in the fight against climate change. While renewable energy innovations are important for reducing future emissions, energy leaders and experts have not yet figured out how to significantly reduce emissions within our existing carbon-based energy system. Until they do, making it cheaper for businesses to invest in carbon capture and storage is the best way to immediately reduce fossil fuel emissions.
The challenge with renewable energy is that we still need carbon-based fuel for backing up renewable energy infrastructure and heavy-duty transportation like trains and planes. That’s where carbon capture comes in: These technologies collect carbon dioxide from carbon-emitting sources — like power plants — before it enters the atmosphere. It is then stored underground or converted to a form that can be isolated from the atmosphere — within plastic or concrete, for instance.
In a best-case, cost-optimal scenario, carbon capture and storage could eventually reduce global emissions by 14%, which could help to keep warming at 2°C, according to a 2017 International Energy Agency report.
The good news is the oil and gas industry is already the global leader in carbon capture. According to the same 2017 IEA report, approximately 30 million tons of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels are currently being captured and sequestered. There are 18 different large-scale project sites in the United States and abroad; two of these power plant sites, one in Texas and one in western Canada, capture more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide each per year, according to a 2018 report from the Global CCS Institute.
Current estimates predict that the oil and gas fields that are being used to supply our energy could store a total of 900 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Even more capacity is available in saltwater-filled rock formations. That capacity far exceeds what we would need in this century.
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To have a real impact, we need to implement carbon capture at a much larger scale and on a much shorter timeline than we are now. A key part of that is making it more economical for companies to invest in this solution. There are some high-concentration sources of carbon dioxide, for example ethanol plants, where carbon dioxide can be captured and sequestered today at a cost of $20 to $40 per ton of carbon. Capture from coal or natural gas power plants is harder because the carbon dioxide is mixed with large amounts of nitrogen gas. In those instances, capture can cost anywhere from three to four times as much because more equipment and energy is required to separate the carbon dioxide from the nitrogen gas.
In the United States, we’ve seen encouraging progress on regulatory support for carbon capture. Congress recently passed legislation to increase incentives for capturing carbon dioxide from $20 to $50 per ton for storage in deep geological formations, and from $10 to $35 per ton when carbon dioxide is used to increase production of oil or gas reservoirs in combination with storage. Increasing these incentives is vital to making carbon capture a part of our decarbonization strategy.
To continue building on this momentum, the United States needs to pass a revenue-neutral carbon pricing policy, which would put a price on carbon emissions and provide the benefits to all Americans through a refund. This policy would provide the fossil fuel industry with financial motivation to decrease emissions and make investments in technology that would make carbon capture more economical, while putting money back in the pockets of American families and spreading the benefits of the energy transition.
With continued support for research and development, there are also opportunities on the horizon to utilize this carbon to make new products instead of storing it underground. For example, fossil fuel emissions can be made back into fuels for energy storage, powering transportation and providing heat to industry and buildings across the country.
Carbon capture isn’t a moonshot solution, nor is it a silver bullet for decarbonization. It’s a roll-up-your-sleeves solution to guiding our energy economy to a cleaner future. It can create new jobs, new clean energy products and protect public health.