3 reasons why environmentalists can cheer the launch of the Petra Nova CCS project

Earlier this week, the energy company, NRG, announced that its CO2 capture and storage (CCS) project at a coal-fired power plant in Texas had begun commercial operation. If history is any guide, many environmental groups are likely to dismiss this CCS project as an environmental distraction (see Greenpeace, for example). But there are a number of reasons why even the staunchest environmental advocates can applaud this project as a critical stepping stone to solving the climate challenge.

Here’s the context:

NRG has partnered with JX Nippon and the US Department of Energy to fund their “Petra Nova” project: a retrofit of NRG’s “WA Parish” coal-fired power plant outside of Houston, Texas with a post-combustion CO2 capture and storage (CCS) system. The CCS technology installed on this power plant will separate and compress CO2 from 240 MWs worth of the plant’s exhaust stream. NRG will then pipe that compressed CO2 80 miles to an oil field, where the CO2 will be injected into an old oil reservoir. The pressure from the injected CO2 will breathe new life into that oil field by pushing oil to the surface for collection. The injected CO2 then will take the oil’s place trapped in the rock below, where it will slowly mineralize into rock itself over the course of millennia. At the end of this process, would-be CO2 emissions from the coal power plants are trapped underground, resulting in a large reduction in the power plant's impact to the climate.

Above: diagram of the oil recovery + CO2 sequestration process employed by the Petra Nova project. Source: US DOE

Above: diagram of the oil recovery + CO2 sequestration process employed by the Petra Nova project. Source: US DOE

The Petra Nova project (and CCS technology more generally) won’t come without challenges in the future, and it is far from a long-term “silver bullet” solution to climate change that will enable us to continue the widespread use of fossil fuels indefinitely. But this project and ones like it are very valuable for the fight against climate change.  

Here are three reasons why environmentalists concerned about climate change can support CCS projects like Petra Nova:

1. CCS projects like Petra Nova can enable a cost-effective, fast, and fair transition to a decarbonized economy, but NOT to an indefinite future of expanding “clean coal” power generation. The fact of the matter is that there is a lot of existing coal power around the world whose CO2 emissions needed to be eliminated as soon as possible if we want to meet climate goals. To accomplish this feat, we have two options: 1) shut down coal power plants before their useful lives are up, and/or 2) install CCS and let these power plants continue to use coal -- but with a fraction of the climate impact -- until they become obsolete. While coal retirement campaigns like the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign have gained some traction with the first approaches, there is still a massive amount of work to be done to eliminate CO2 emissions from coal power plants across the globe. This is not to say that environmental campaigners should ditch all existing efforts around closing coal power plants in favor of advocacy for CCS -- instead, CCS can provide another valuable option for which these campaigners can advocate in contexts where the rapid shutdown of coal is undesirable and/or politically infeasible.

And how can environmental advocates trust that advocacy for CCS is actually a bridge to a coal-free future and not an indefinite license to burn coal? For one, natural gas is beating out coal as the most economically viable fossil fuel for power generation in North America, and renewables -- even when coupled with demand side management tools (e.g. battery storage, load response) -- are getting effective enough to compete against coal for new power plant capacity around the world. As President Obama recently noted in his article in Science, “the irreversible momentum of clean energy” will be difficult to overcome -- it just might take a while for this momentum to build to the point where the discussion on clean v. dirty energy is moot due to the favorable economics of clean energy alone. As a result, CCS projects like Petra Nova offer a potential lifesaver for the planet in the interim.

2. The technology pioneered at the Petra Nova project is relevant for controlling emissions from other types of fossil power generation (e.g. natural gas) and from other difficult-to-decarbonize heavy industrial sources (like cement, steel, and chemical factories). While CO2 emissions from coal power plants is a significant part of the climate problem, we will also need to eliminate CO2 emissions from other sources within the next few decades to meet climate targets. Transitioning all of these projects to renewables will be even harder than the transition from coal power, which means that CCS technology will be highly valuable for reducing CO2 emissions from these projects in the near future. Because CCS technology like that deployed at Petra Nova can be adapted for CCS at other industrial sources of CO2, projects like Petra Nova can generate valuable lessons that help us reduce costs, develop fair environmental and safety regulations, and increase investor experience for CCS projects in all sectors of the economy in the future.

Box 4.1 of the US Midcentury Deep Decarbonization Strategy makes it clear how important CCS is beyond coal power.

Box 4.1 of the US Midcentury Deep Decarbonization Strategy makes it clear how important CCS is beyond coal power.

3. Fossil CCS projects -- even those that use captured CO2 to produce oil -- can help pave the way for negative emissions in the industrial sector in the future. As the former NASA scientist Jim Hansen recently told Rolling Stone: “We are at the point now where if you want to stabilize the Earth's energy balance, which is nominally what you would need to do to stabilize climate, you would need to reduce emissions several percent a year, and you would need to suck 100 gigatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is more than you could get from reforestation and improved agricultural practices.” The implication: in addition to rapid reductions in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use, we’ll likely need big industrial CCS processes to generate negative emissions via approaches like sustainable bioenergy coupled with CCS and/or direct air capture (DAC) + sequestration to make our climate goals a reality. Because there are no good markets for these industrial negative emissions projects today, the only viable way for companies to develop and test the components for these solutions today is through CCS projects like Petra Nova (e.g. on a coal power plant with the CO2 utilized to drill for more oil). Is coal power for oil production a good long-term vision for CCS technology? No. But until better markets and regulations exist for negative emission technologies, these types of projects are the only viable way to improve negative emissions technology components in the meantime. 

In conclusion:

At the end of the day, the Petra Nova CCS project offers an all-too-rare example where environmentalists can genuinely applaud big energy companies for developing and deploying tools for the climate solution toolkit. CCS doesn't need to be the long-term climate solution of choice for environmentalists, but efforts like Petra Nova can be commended by all for advancing technology that will be extremely valuable in the fight to solve the climate challenge.