Good things ahead: An industrial-scale solution for carbon emissions

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By Dr. Lorraine Sobers – OilNOW

Guyana’s Petroleum Activities Bill, passed recently in Parliament underscores Guyana’s commitment to maintain its status as a net carbon sink—a country that eliminates more carbon dioxide emissions than it produces. Guyana has been a net carbon sink for its entire history, annually storing 5.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide within its over 16.5 million hectares of forests. 

However, as Guyana enters the league of nations with daily oil production exceeding 1 million barrels of oil per day, its carbon footprint will increase. At present, Guyana has a miniscule direct carbon footprint but Sections 71 and 72 create an overarching legal framework to preserve that status even as oil production increases. Section 71 of the Petroleum Activities Bill reads: 

“The Minister may grant a geological storage license for carbon dioxide subject to such terms and conditions prescribed by regulation.”

Why Carbon Storage is needed

Carbon storage, more accurately carbon dioxide (CO2) storage, is an industrial-scale response to the industrial-scale challenge of reducing CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. 

Reports commissioned by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have long come to the conclusion that CO2 emissions are driving up the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse gas effect, causing an increase in the global average temperature. IEA GHG Analysts have determined that to limit the rise in global average temperature to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100, CCS, which alone can account for 20-30% of the cut in CO2 emissions, is a critical technology. 

Other emission reduction strategies such as fuel switching, energy efficiency and conservation will not be enough. Renewable energy deployment cannot catch up with energy demands or realise the drastic shift needed in energy generation and consumption practices by 2050. 

Two approaches to solving the problem of CO2 emissions are: 1) avoid or drastically reduce CO2 emissions across all industries or 2) capture and store CO2 that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. The former approach calls for electric cars, low energy light bulbs, switching from fuel oil to hydrogen and renewable energy which undoubtedly have a role to play in achieving the goal set forward by the UNFCCC Paris Agreement. However without CCS, emissions reduction targets will not be realised within the set timeframe. Further, rapid shifts in energy sources can cause catastrophic disruption to and destruction of socio-economic progress of developing countries. 

Andy Samuel, the chief executive of the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) identifies the main drivers for the UK’s carbon storage licensing round :1) the demand for carbon storage sites, 2) opportunity to reduce carbon emissions, 3) protection of “the viability and competitiveness of British industry” and, 4) facilitate the creation of “many thousands of highly skilled jobs”.

Hard-line environmentalists will accept only the first approach, rejecting carbon storage as a solution for oil and gas producers like Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. Instead they offer an utopic reconstruction of every facet of modern society by 2050, leaving poorer countries to run breathlessly behind the fast moving train of energy transition. 

Nevertheless, Guyana has stood its ground by including provisions for carbon storage in its Petroleum Activities Bill. 

I began research on carbon storage almost 20 years ago. It was the type of research topic that mostly early career professors and young research students would pursue seriously. However, established energy sector gatekeepers have, only in the last five years or so, begun to accept and understand the potential of CCS. I am pleasantly surprised that Guyana has introduced this legislation at such an early stage of its energy sector development.

Geologic Storage for Carbon Dioxide 

Carbon dioxide collected at large stationary emission sources such as power generation and petrochemical plants can be permanently removed from the atmosphere by injecting large volumes into subsurface saline aquifers (salt water accumulations), depleted oil or gas reservoirs. Engineers have been able to implement this technology safely and successfully in the Sleipner field, offshore Norway, for example, and other sites around the world. For over 20 years, Sleipner field operations have sequestered 1 million tonnes per annum of carbon. To date, geophysical monitoring has shown the injected CO2 to be securely contained. 

Underground accumulations of CO2 have also occurred naturally at several sites around the world. Studies have also shown that risk of CO2 escape is very low in suitable storage sites. 

Carbon Storage Feasibility

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is suitable for nations with large-scale CO2 emissions such as developed countries and high emitters per capita emitters like Trinidad and Tobago. In January 2022, Trinidad and Tobago introduced a 30% tax credit on the cost of investment, up to a maximum of TT$500,000 for CCS and CO2-enhanced oil recovery. However, they have not specifically included geologic carbon storage in their Petroleum Act and, with ongoing gas shortages, local CO2 emissions will decline as a natural consequence. 

It is difficult to justify investment into geologic CO2 storage as a standalone operation with limited certainty about the economics of the project. Nevertheless, feasibility and geologic storage capacity studies are ongoing to improve cost estimates. Local legislation in the form of attractive tax incentives, strong disincentives or international pressure may cause the local industry to take action.

Quite simply, for CCS to become a reality, the industrial source of CO2 will have to be interconnected with a means of transportation and a final storage location. However this technology needs significant investment underpinned by supporting legal and fiscal frameworks. At this stage in its energy sector development, Guyana’s most significant source of CO2  emissions is electric power generation using fuel oil turbines. Switching to dual fuel turbines using natural gas will reduce power generation emissions by 75%.  However, when gas comes to shore, emissions from new downstream petrochemical plants and power generation can be allocated to CO2 underground storage sites for disposal, resulting in net zero emissions. 

For Guyana, Sections 71 and 72 represent a proactive approach to disposal of large-scale anthropogenic CO2 emissions that signals good things ahead. 

About the Author

Dr. Lorraine Sobers is a Fulbright Scholar currently lecturing at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine in the Petroleum Studies Unit. Dr Sobers has a BS in Chemical Engineering and MS in Petroleum Engineering from Texas Tech University. She obtained a PhD in Petroleum Engineering from Imperial College, London in 2012. Dr. Sobers has 20 years’ experience in the energy sector specializing in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).  Dr. Sobers is the Project Coordinator for CO2 Emission Reduction Mobilization (CERM) Project, a Fellow of the Caribbean Policy Consortium and a member of the Global Americans Global High Level Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean.

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