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GOP Climate Bill Does Carbon Capture and Storage Actually Reduce Emissions

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) this week published A Critique of the House Republican Climate Policy Proposals. The author, AEI economist Benjamin Zycher, reviews the Trillion Trees Act (H.R. 5859), the Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage Innovation Act (H.R. 5865), the New Energy Frontiers through Carbon Innovation Act of 2020 (H.R. 5864), and an untitled bill to increase the tax credit for direct carbon dioxide air capture facilities (H.R. 5883).

Zycher finds that the warming reductions achieved by tree planting and carbon capture technologies would be “effectively equal to zero” yet “very expensive” to implement.

Zycher observes that thhe United States could plant 60 billion trees over the next two decades “using 330 million acres of land, an area well over three times the land area of California.” Yet, by 2050, such an effort would remove only about 1 percent of current annual global greenhouse gas emissions. “The climate impact of that sequestering effect would be a bit less than 1/100th of a degree C by 2100—effectively zero—using any mainstream climate model.”

Ironically, tree planting could increase surface temperatures in temperate regions because tree canopies tend to darken the landscape, absorbing solar radiation rather than reflecting it back to space.

Zycher estimates it would take 1,300 carbon capture power plants, each capturing 500,000 tons of CO2 per year, to reduce current U.S. annual emissions (6.5 billion tons) by just 10 percent. At a cost of $500 million per plant, the total cost would be $650 billion. Again, no discernible climate benefit, since even complete elimination of U.S. emissions would avert only 0.173 degrees C of warming in 2100, according to standard climate modeling.

Zycher also comments that the “net effect” of carbon capture projects on global temperatures is “not clear. Permit me to elaborate.

There are only two utility-scale carbon capture power plants in commercial operation today, Petra Nova in Texas and Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan. Selling CO2 to firms engaged in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations is central to both facilities’ business plans. EOR operators inject CO2 into older oil fields to increase field pressure and reduce the oil’s viscosity. As a result, more oil flows to the well bore and production increases.

When the recovered oil is combusted, it emits CO2, which raises an obvious question: What is the net change in emissions when carbon capture and EOR are combined?

In a 2011 report, the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) estimated that injecting 20 billion tons of CO2 underground for EOR would increase U.S. oil production by 67 billion barrels. According to EPA emissions data, combusting one barrel of oil emits, on average, 0.43 metric tons of CO2. Plugging that conversion factor into NETL’s analysis, injection of 20 billion metric tons of CO2 produces 67 billion barrels of oil that, when combusted, emit 28.81 billion metric tons of CO2. In other words, CCS combined with EOR emits 1.41 tons of CO2 for every ton injected underground.

In a 2010 report, NETL summarized a Montana Tech University study of a potential CCS-EOR operation. The study found that sequestering 109 million metric tons of CO2 into Montana’s Elm Coulee and Cedar Creek oil fields could result in the recovery of 666 million barrels of oil. Again, based on EPA emissions data, combusting the 666 million barrels of recovered oil would emit 286 million metric tons of CO2—about 2.6 tons of CO2 emitted for every ton stored underground.

The usual rejoinder to such calculations is that the recovered oil does not increase total oil supply but merely displaces higher-cost production elsewhere in the global petroleum market.

That assumption is hard to square with oil market behavior of the past six years. If global petroleum supply and demand were so precisely balanced, Saudi Arabia would have reduced output barrel-for-barrel as U.S. oil production from shale surged. Instead, the Saudis increased output in hopes of driving oil prices down below U.S. firms’ production costs.

Or, conversely, if each incremental barrel just displaces a more expensive barrel elsewhere, U.S. firms would have decreased production as Saudi output increased. Instead, the most disciplined and resourceful increased efficiency to lower their production costs.

Since March 9, Russia and Saudi Arabia have been waging an oil price war, ramping up production despite the coronavirus-inflicted global economic contraction, which has dramatically depressed oil demand and prices. The war continues with no end in sight.

Such facts inspire little confidence that EOR displaces rather than adds to total petroleum supply.