Exclusive: Testing, Progress Underway Puts Texas At Center of New Carbon Capture Tech

Work among Houston companies, Permian projects and UT Austin keep the Lone Star State at the cutting edge of carbon capture and storage R&D


January 10, 2020

Texas remains one of the hot spots for research and development of carbon capture technologies, with academic and field activities continuing daily.

Most recently, Houston’s Occidental Petroleum has joined with France’s Total for a carbon-capture project at a Colorado location for possible use in the Lone Star State, while Houston’s Fluor Corp. will take part in a US Dept. of Energy-funded project aimed at eventually retrofitting power plants with carbon-capture tech.

This, even as UT Austin continues research into capture techniques and a new program is underway in West Texas to test an experimental design.

Lawmakers and scientists have for years looked to carbon capture and sequestration as a promising technology for reducing emissions, even as the practical capability for capture and storage has progressed very slowly and technical costs have remained high.

Never mind that the Petra Nova facility, a coal-fired power plant near Houston, is one of only two already operating power plants with carbon capture and storage in the world, and is the only such facility in the US..

Oxy Petroleum and Total now say they are targeting the possible capture of nearly a quarter-million metric tons of carbon each year a the Holcim Portland, Colorado, cement plant, according to the company, with Oxy buying and using the resulting carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery that could include West Texas as well as Colorado.

Oxy bills itself as one of the leading carbon-capture injection users for mature oil and gas wells.

Meanwhile, in Kern County, California, the DOE has agreed to help fund a feasibility study for retrofitting California Resource Corp.’s (CRC) 550-megawatt Elk Hills Power Plant with equipment allowing it to capture and sequester three-quarters of the CO2 produced at the site.

Houston-based Fluor Corp. has announced its part in engineering and construction on the Elk Hills project aimed at burying carbon dioxide that would otherwise be vented into the atmosphere.

In partnership with Palo Alto’s Electric Power Research Institute, Fluor has said it will be front-and-center in helping build containment for the project that could bury up to 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking more than 300,000 passenger vehicles off the road, according to the institute.

The project is moving ahead this year, with the CO2 to be buried a mile underground — placement that it’s hoped will help extend the lives of oil wells and promote production in nearby areas.

The plan is to have the project working by about 2025 as part of CRC’s plan for long-term carbon capture and sustainability available by 2030.

There are technical uncertainties that need to be answered, though, such as finding ways to be certain the captured CO2 doesn’t rise to the surface after burial, which is why the study period to begin this year is so important.

But if the project proves successful, it could mean that “many existing U.S.-based plants might be able to be retrofitted,” the DOE noted last year, and it could put Houston’s Fluor in position for helping create carbon capture project in the future.

The project will use Fluor’s amine-based Econamine FG Plus process to capture 75 percent of the CO2 produced by the Elk Hills Power Plant.

Overall, about 4,000 tons of CO2 per day could be captured and delivered for use in enhanced oil recovery. If the technologies used in this project are successfully implemented, many existing U.S.-based plants might be able to be retrofitted under the Fluor process.

The project was among nine power plant-based carbon-capture proposals selected for funding last summer by the DOE, according to Bakersfield.com.

Here at home, a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin in partnership with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the Equinor Research Centre looked at the amount of geological space now usable in formations that are likely suited to holding greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere..

The UT research concluded that there is “easily enough space in the world’s nearshore continental margins to store up to 7 gigatons of carbon dioxide, a goal that could be achieved by the year 2050,” the university wrote in a report.

Such a goal could be reached by installing 10,000 to 14,000 injection wells worldwide in the next 30 years.

“That may sound like a lot of wells,” the researchers point out, but the “oil and gas industry has already shown that speedy build-up of infrastructure is possible — and they point to the worldwide carbon capture deployment required over the next three decades being roughly equivalent to the development of oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico over the past 70 years, or five times the development of Norwegian oil and gas infrastructure in the North Sea.”

“The great thing about this study is that we have inverted the decarbonization challenge by working out how many wells are needed to achieve emissions cuts under the 2-degree (Celsius) scenario,” according to the lead author of the study, Philip Ringrose, an adjunct professor at the Norwegian university.

“It turns out to be only a fraction of the historical petroleum industry ─ or around 12,000 wells globally. Shared among 5-7 continental CCS hubs ─ that is only about 2,000 wells per region.

“Very doable!

“But we need to get cracking as soon as possible.”

Coauthor Tip Meckel of UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology calls the plan outlined in the study released last month an “actionable, detailed pathway for carbon capture and storage to meet the goals” as set by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

And with significant tax credits available for carbon capture in the US, “this is a really big hammer that we can deploy right now to put a dent in our emissions profile.”

There are, however, problems in implementing a law that more than doubles power plant tax credits for building carbon dioxide-limiting systems, largely because of Internal Revenue Service tax guideline delays, but political pressure will likely bring some IRS guidance this year — and extension of the law beyond its 2024 deadline would not be surprising.

Houston’s Oxy Petroleum late last year noted that it’s working on a number of carbon-capture projects, in addition to its recent partnership with Total, and there are recently-announced plans to build a Permian Basin plant to suck carbon out of the sky.

In fact, somewhere along the Permian Basin‘s winding roads today is continuing construction by a Canadian company for a plant that it believes will suck from the air a million tons of carbon being pumped out of the ground all around it during an experimentation period.

Carbon Engineering‘s groundbreaking Texas plant hopes to replicate work already underway at its pilot plant in Squamish, B.C, which is pulling CO2 from the air and turning it into fuel, the company recently said in a statement.

“We’re pulling the CO2 back down,” CEO Steve Oldham told an interviewer from Guelphtoday.

There are several projects around the nation to inject CO2 underground to force more oil to the surface which some hope will eventually result in carbon-negative energy processes, and there are even plans to use CO2 for creation of carbon nanotubes for use in research or plastics or even useful chemicals.

And while some research and projects to perfect more ways of capturing carbon continue worldwide, Texas remains at the heart of not only the energy industries, but of research and development in technologies that will help in the fight against climate change.

— Mike Shiloh and staff