The fossil fuel industry has played a pioneering role in advancing carbon capture research. This includes carbon capture and utilization (CCU) for fuel, and enhanced oil recovery or (EOR) that uses captured carbon to extract more oil. Neither CCU nor EOR will enable us to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement (ie keeping temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius). Using captured carbon to make fuel is at best carbon neutral and extracting more oil is fundamentally at odds with efforts to curtail climate change.. Research (Mac Dowell, Fennell, Shah, and Maitland, 2017) clearly shows that converting captured carbon into liquid fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere and does not contribute to the CO2 mitigation challenge. Turning captured carbon into burnable fuel may prove to be a costly distraction both financially and politically. As stated by Dan Lashof of the World Resources Institute, this could even be used as a justification to extend the life of the fossil fuel era (Rathi, 2019).
However, some of the technologies associated with extracting carbon from the burning of fossil fuels have contributed to approaches that can be repurposed for non-fuel-based sequestration. So while we should evaluate approaches like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), we should not overlook applications of CCU and direct air capture (DAC) that can use captured carbon to make other things besides combustible fuels (e.g.: construction materials or carbon fiber).
It is also important to understand that the fossil fuel industry’s investment in EOR has advanced our knowledge of carbon capture. EOR has been a powerful financing mechanism to hone technological proficiency as an interim step towards a post-fossil fuel world. Having markets for captured carbon reduces the cost of carbon dioxide reduction (CDR) and this can lower a barrier that impedes their development. As explained by Climeworks founder, Jan Wurzbacher, “It has to be for business; CO2 capture can’t work for free” (McGrath, 2017). EOR may offer a useful short-term economic incentive for some CDR projects but free markets on their own are unlikely to attract all the needed investment capital.
At present, there is a symbiotic relationship between the fossil fuel industry, CCS, CCU, and DAC. In 2018, 90 percent of captured CO2 was used for EOR (Jones, 2020) and this provides a much-needed economic incentive for CDR technologies. This is also an important source of revenue to finance CDR research. CCS is most often used in fossil fuel powered energy plants, and captured carbon in CCU applications is commonly used to make fuel. DAC is also funded by the fossil fuel industry. As explained by Susan Hovorka, a geologist with the University of Texas at Austin, oil, and DAC should mix. “It’s a perfectly reasonable step toward getting the NETs portfolio commercialized,” Hovorka said.
“If we want to do something like DAC on a Gt scale, we can’t do it without the help of the energy companies, ” said one NAS committee member (Kramer, 2020). The cost of CDR would be up to 70 percent higher without the fossil fuel industry’s support for CCS (EIA, n.d.). EOR is also a source of human resources. According to Christopher W. Jones, associate vice president for research at Georgia Institute of Technology, CCS used in conjunction with fossil fuels involve “transferable” know-how that could benefit DAC (Welch, 2020). Scaling CDR requires an immense workforce and EOR workers have the exact skill sets required (Kramer, 2018).
CDR has benefited from the fossil fuel industry’s investments, however, if the goal is to draw down atmospheric carbon, we cannot afford to focus on applications that extract or make fuel.
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