Out of thin air: Opportunities in industrial low carbon development

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By Dr. Lorraine Sobers – OilNOW

Beginning in 2015, Guyana’s hydrocarbon finds have been fast and fabulous: 11 billion barrels and counting; production has been sizeable and surging: 400,000 barrels per day and growing; incremental GDP has been swift and sensational, 63.3% increase in the first half of 2023. However, industrial low carbon development, excluding renewable energy projects, have progressed more slowly with long pauses of silence. Last year, Hess Corporation purchased carbon credits from the Guyana government to offset carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions. By selling carbon credits linked to its standing forest, Guyana is generating revenue for low carbon development using CO2 ‘out of thin air’. In this article, I will highlight opportunities for industrial low carbon development from gas to be brought to shore. With natural gas processing and its use as fuel or feedstock, CO2 emissions are inevitable. These emissions are also a hidden resource.

Parallels in nature 

‘Out of thin air’ means ‘from non-existent, unknown or hidden resources’ — an apt description for heavy industry built around the use of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas and waste effluent from power generation and the petrochemical industries. The phrase can also be used to literally describe the wealth generated from Guyana’s luxuriant, tropical forest, providing a substantial carbon sink through the process of photosynthesis. Each leaf acts as a tiny industrial plant using solar energy to combine and convert CO2 from the atmosphere, water, and minerals into energy-dense organic compounds. Carbon-based industrial development is in some ways a biomimicry of trees — industrial plants acting as large man-made ‘leaves’ to combine CO2 with other raw materials to create inorganic material through processing.

For Guyana, CO2 usage and storage will not save the planet by themselves. However, CO2 storage can generate revenue and offset emissions while CO2 usage can bolster diversification, specifically for the petrochemical and agricultural sectors.

CO2 storage through forest conservation

Guyana has countless leafy trees spread across 18 million hectares of forest, removing 20 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Last year, Hess Corporation entered into an agreement with Guyana to purchase US$750 million in carbon credits from Guyana over a 10-year period. Each carbon credit offsets one metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted by Hess Corporation. Companies like Hess Corporation now operate within Guyana as oil and gas producers at the most notable time in the country’s history. 

CO2 storage through geologic storage

Recently, I endorsed legislation passed allowing for the geologic storage of CO2 in Guyana through carbon capture and storage (CCS). I commend Guyanese lawmakers for taking the first bold step to commercialise this hidden resource. Last year Britain’s North Sea Transition Authority announced the success of its bid round for offshore geologic carbon storage, attracting twenty-six (26) bids from nineteen (19) companies for the thirteen (13) areas offered. This year, twenty-one (21) new licenses were granted to thirteen (13) companies. 

CO2 capture utilisation and storage opportunities

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), of which CCS is a subset, presents another opportunity for Guyana to mitigate climate change, and remain a carbon sink. generate revenue and advance its manufacturing sector out of thin air. Guyana’s direct emissions, classified as Scope 1 emissions, will remain relatively small. However, CCUS can be used to offset the anticipated increase in Guyana’s carbon footprint, even as the energy sector continues to grow and expand into oil and gas processing.

CCUS also provides several opportunities in the manufacturing sector. CO2 can be used to produce fuels, chemicals and building materials. Several of these processes are mature, commercial technologies used around the world. Combined with hydrogen, CO2 can be converted to fuels and chemicals including methane, methanol, ethanol, olefins, gasoline and aviation fuels. In cases where a lot of electricity is needed, applying CCS or using renewable energy can lower the carbon intensity of the process. Chemical intermediates from CO2, such as propylene and ethylene are the starting point for a wide range of complex chemicals, plastics, polymers and fibers.

CO2 utilisation and the agriculture sector

Although the energy sector is receiving a lot of attention, it is not labour intensive. It is also risky to depend on a single economic activity based primarily on the highs and lows of oil prices, especially as peak oil looms in just a couple of decades. However, there is opportunity to augment and strengthen the agriculture sector from oil and gas revenue and the by-products of gas usage, namely CO2. Guyana can develop its agriculture sector into large-scale, efficient, sustainable operations, alongside energy sector developments.

The fertiliser industry has a high demand with high prices maintained over the last decade years. As early as the 1950s, natural gas and CO2 have been used to manufacture urea in Trinidad. Urea and fertiliser manufacture are perfectly suited for Guyana, being the ‘bread basket of the Caribbean and present a real opportunity around the proposed industrial hub at the Wales Estate, where the gas-to-power project is emerging. Lower electricity prices, combined with the ready availability of fuels and feedstocks, is a promising recipe for economic growth. 

Sustained increases in food prices have been troubling Caribbean households for some time now. CARICOM nations have struggled to maintain self-sufficient food production or meet the local, regional and international demand for certain raw produce, such as bananas, cocoa, sugar, coconut, avocadoes, mangoes and exotic fruits, and processed agricultural goods. Guyana has the opportunity to use renewable energy, land space and locally CO2-produced fertiliser to bolster food security and self-sufficiency for itself and the region.

Crop yield boosting with CO

Higher concentrations of CO2, known as CO2 dosing, in a closed environment such as a climate-controlled, greenhouse can boost crop yield of cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant (also known as bhaigan locally) and lettuce. The concentration of CO2 can be adjusted to create an optimal environment for growth. This technology has been used extensively in the Netherlands with anthropogenic and atmospheric CO2.

Last week, I expounded on the need for better scores in mathematics at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams. The good news is that Guyanese students have demonstrated outstanding aptitude for agriculture by their noteworthy performance in exams; pass rates are consistently over 90%. Guyanese youth are interested in and are well-prepared for viable opportunities in the agriculture sector.

History has shown that there are challenges to attracting and retaining manpower in the agriculture sector when there is such close contact to lucrative energy sector jobs. However, through innovative processes and technologies, industrial agriculture can be as exciting and financially rewarding as the energy sector. Policies and oil dollars can boost the scale of food production and food processing with satisfactory profit margins.

CO2 is a waste product that can become a useful resource within the country’s low carbon development strategy. Guyana can remain a net carbon sink while leveraging on this hidden resource literally taken out of thin air.

About the Author

Dr. Lorraine Sobers is a Petroleum Engineering lecturer at the University of the West Indies. She has 20 years’ experience in the energy sector, specialising in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). She has a keen interest in using her technical expertise for the development of low carbon development policies. Dr. Sobers is 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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