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Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Sequestration and Oil Production
Jamais Cascio, 18 Nov 05

co2_sequestration.jpgThe US Department of Energy trumpeted the result this week: the DOE-funded “Weyburn Project” successfully sequestered five million tons of carbon dioxide into the Weyburn Oilfield in Saskatchewan, Canada, while doubling the field’s oil recovery rate. The press release goes on to say,

“The success of the Weyburn Project could have incredible implications for reducing CO2 emissions and increasing America’s oil production. Just by applying this technique to the oil fields of Western Canada we would see billions of additional barrels of oil and a reduction in CO2 emissions equivalent to pulling more than 200 million cars off the road for a year,” Secretary of Energy Bodman said.

I'm quite certain that you folks have already picked up on the key underlying problem. The additional barrels of oil put out carbon dioxide even while the sequestration buries it. In fact, as I show in the extended entry, the additional oil puts out more CO2 than is buried. The Weyburn sequestration model is a study in the need to pay attention to the trade-offs involved in quick-fix solutions to big problems.

The real carbon dioxide balance isn't spelled out in the press release, of course, but the DOE story gives this helpful bit of information: Scientists project that, by using knowledge gained from the Weyburn Project, the Weyburn Oilfield will remain viable for another 20 years, produce an additional 130 million barrels of oil, and sequester as much as 30 million tons of CO2.

That's the key to the comparison. How much carbon dioxide does 130 million barrels of oil put into the air? A typical barrel of oil produces between 19 and 20 gallons of gasoline; a gallon of gasoline, in turn, produces about 20 pounds of CO2. Each barrel of oil is responsible, on average, for about 400 pounds of carbon dioxide, and that doesn't even begin to count the other uses of the oil in that barrel. It turns out that less than half of a barrel of oil goes to gasoline (19.6 gallons out of 44.4 gallons of total oil products); the majority goes to the production of products like heating fuel oil, jet fuel, lubricants, even some kinds of waxes. Some of those products will also put out a good bit of CO2 into the air.

Five barrels of oil result in a ton of CO2 from gasoline use alone. 130 million additional barrels, therefore, mean at least 26 million more tons of CO2. If the only product from a barrel of oil was gasoline, the balance would just barely be positive. It's not, though, and even if the remaining uses of the barrel were somehow half as "dirty" in carbon dioxide as gasoline, that's still at least another 13-15 million additional tons of CO2, more than eliminating the slight benefit. Using CO2 sequestration for enhanced oil recovery at Weyburn will put about 10 million more tons of CO2 into the air than if we didn't extract the additional oil in the first place. Carbon dioxide sequestration as part of enhanced oil recovery is a climate insult dressed up in green clothing.

As Watthead correctly points out, the use of CO2 as a means of enhanced recovery from oil fields is not new; the difference in the Weyburn project is that the CO2 used comes from industrial output, and would previously have been released into the atmosphere (past CO2-based recovery used carbon dioxide removed from naturally-occurring underground pockets). If the choice is between sequestering some atmospheric CO2 for oil recovery versus no sequestration (but continued enhanced oil recovery), sequestration is clearly a better result. But as the DOE release points out, the use of natural pockets of carbon dioxide happens at "considerable expense" -- oil companies would almost certainly start using industrial/atmospheric CO2 regardless of the environmental benefits (such as they are) for cost reasons alone.

Finally, to put the whole thing in perspective: if Weyburn manages to sequester 30 million tons of CO2 over the next 20 years, that's still a tiny fraction of the CO2 put out by industrial processes. The IPCC estimates that non-vehicular artificial sources of CO2 put out 13.5 billion tons of CO2 every year.

We're going to hear a lot more about sequestration in the months and years to come, precisely because it can readily be done in ways that support and extend the life of current fossil-fuel-based industries. We need to be extra careful to pay close attention to the numbers tossed about by proponents. There are certainly ways to use sequestration wisely, and the process will almost certainly be a part -- a small part -- of the overall mix of strategies for mitigating, responding to, and eventually reversing global warming. But it will have to be used carefully, and sparingly... and not just to make it easier to get more fossil fuels.

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Comments

Interesting and informative. Sequestration "may" have an important part to play, just like biofuels, touted in my part of the country as one of the magic bullets. But the concern always is--as you point out--that smoke and mirrors will be used to avoid and or postpone some very dificult choices.


Posted by: waw on 18 Nov 05

Interesting that you picked up on the problem,i.e, we really end up with more CO2 unless we can sequester it in our cars. I thought it was just me as I made a similar comment at Green Car Congress.

The powers that be in the United States are still really just interested in supply, regardless of what sop that may make to efficiency or conservation.

If you have no real goals or destination, any road will get you there. That is the way our government is proceeding.


Posted by: tom on 18 Nov 05

"[Weyburn could] sequester as much as 30 million tons of CO2"

"Weyburn will put about 10 million more tons of CO2 into the air than if we didn't extract the additional oil in the first place."

So, let me get this straight, you're pissing on a tech that reduces the net CO2 emissions of our civilization's primary energy source by 75%?

Burning all that extra-oil isn't going to produce anymore CO2 than burning normal oil does. And the net CO2 of the extra oil is significantly lower than that of normal oil, since 3/4 of the CO2 is sequestered. Sounds pretty good.

But the real signifigance of this is that, if it works as advertised, it could have a real impact on when oil production peaks. That means more oil burned overall ... but, also more time to develop positive alternative technologies.

If oil peaks soon and hard society will suddenly develop a vastly increased interest in alternative fuels (as well as organic gardening and the nutritive qualities of shoe leather), but that interest will be worthless with an economy and manufacturing base crippled by energy shortages. Maybe civilization survives, but the human suffering involved in large scale "demand destruction" of oil products would be unprecidented.

My idea of a "bright green future" doesn't include a decades long depression and mass-starvation in third world nations suddenly deprived of long-distance food shipments.

I doubt anyone who is inclined to read this site would deny that we need to get off our oil addiction and the sooner the better. But we've build a civilization based on the increase access to *all* that the cheap energy of oil provides and withdrawl from this particular drug could starve us all.

Poo-pooing a technology which would reduce net CO2 emissions from oil by 75% simply because it isn't a perfect 100% is nonsense.

Remember the next time you sit down to eat: the food on your plate traveled an average of 2000 miles. The "green revolution" only succeeded in staving of Malthus because of cheap energy ... you gobble oil like a two-legged SUV.

"Seeing the forest for the trees" indeed.


Posted by: Joe Vaughan on 18 Nov 05

Joe,

Evidently, I was not very clear in my post. Let me see if I can be more clear here.

Enhanced Recovery Sequestration (ERS) does not "reduce net CO2 emissions from oil by 75%." Under the best circumstances it could reduce the net emissions from the oil recovered from that particular well by 75% -- something I describe in the post as "clearly a better result." This assumes that the non-gasoline uses are less carbon-intesive; if they're equivalent to gas, the benefit for those barrels of oil is 50%, and if they're worse -- and one website I hit (which didn't have resources to back up its numbers, which is why I didn't link it in the post) suggests they're much worse -- the net result could be even lower.

Further, there are lots of uncertainties about how well other fields will support the sequestration process. The question of expense remains open, especially regarding the wells in hard-to-reach and/or poor areas. It's highly unlikely that all oil production could be partially-compensated-for in this way, and from what I've read, I would doubt that even a majority of production could efficiently use this process.

The more important issue, and what I tried to get at here, is that sequestration is often used as a method of continuing to rely on carbon-intensive industries. You may see this as allowing a soft landing, but others (and I've quoted them here before) explicitly see it as a way to delay having to make substantive changes.

If you're a regular reader, you know that I don't buy the "collapse of civilization" version of the peak oil scenario. If I thought it was a likelihood, I might be more inclined to accept continued climate damage as a preventative. Instead, I strongly believe that we're far more at risk from the acceleration of global warming by hitting a carbon dioxide level tipping point.

In short, the potential benefit is limited and the potential policy risk is great. Skepticism about the application of this sort of sequestration technology seems warranted.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 18 Nov 05

Here is a brutal fact. No matter what china and india will consume all the coal and oil and gas on the planet that isnt consumed by someone else.

This tech plus others allows us to cram SOME of the carbon back out of the air. Its not perfect but its all we have right now.


Posted by: wintermane on 18 Nov 05

::blinks:: I call bullshit.

Put it this way: does it alter the chemical structure of octane, nanane, or pentane? If so, will it still work in my car?

I'm sure the refinement process traps all the CO2 it produces itself, as well as collecting the CO2 in the air surrounding the plant, but get real here. CH3-(CH2)6-CH3 burns with 12O2 into 8CO2 and 6H2O, producing 5818 kJ/mol during optimal combustion conditions regardless of what you do to it before hand.

I know you're all desperate to believe in a technology that can make a gasoline economy more efficient, but lets do some real math here.

CH3-(CH2)6-CH3 has a molar mass of 126g
8CO2 has a molar mass of 352g

What happens to the tonnage of Oil production in the U.S. doubles? 30 million tons of CO2 just isn't enough to compensate for that increase.

In other words, something like this will only accelerate a supposed global warming.

Think DEFC. They've been recently made very efficient (google for "Acta HYPERMEC"). Sure, it produces CO2 as well, but it produces it from ethanol source. IE: it's releasing carbon that a plant has already sequestered in production of sugars.


Posted by: Bryan on 18 Nov 05

Jamais,

I understand that the back of the envelope reduction figure only applies to the oil produced using this process, not all the oil in world. And I definitely agree that climate tipping points are at least as serious a threat as a peak-oil collapse.

But I think you under-estimate our dependence on oil and the energy density it provides ... 6 billion people is far beyond the carrying capacity of the earth absent industrial civilization.

The issue isn't trucking around suburbia in our SUVs ... that is clearly moronic. Its about the way the energy density of liquid fuels is harnessed to increase our access to every single resource we rely on to live. And the scale of that dependence.

I'm actually more inclined to expect a soft-landing into a post-carbon economy than my first post would suggest. But given some of the recent data on fields-in-production depeletion rates, that may have more to do with needing to able to sleep at night than clear-headed realism (I also try to maintain the belief that thawing peatbogs in Siberia aren't releasing millions of tons of methane).

But I digress and you are right: peak-oil probably won't destroy civilization. Or at least not the nooks of it occupied by the wealthy and well-informed. Oil at $100, $150 or $200 a barrel may be exactly what we need to spur the development of the technologies and ways of life that could save us. But I'm still going to go ahead and weep for the millions who's lives will be destroyed when the legs of energy they depend on are swept away.

In my work I see the effects of hunger, homelessness and poverty everyday. And I see that humanity has blindly (or greedily) used cheap energy to grow to point of utter dependance and unsustainability. So that combination makes me testy about what I perceive as a tendency among environmentalists to assume that in an ideal world we'd all just stop using oil. It just isn't that simple.

(And I should acknowledge that in my first comment, I was reacting as much to my annoyance at that tendency as I was to your post, so I reacted a bit unfairly. Sorry about that and keep up the good work.)


Posted by: Joe Vaughan on 18 Nov 05

The use of CO2 for EOR would compare more favorably against the use of coal-to-liquids to produce the same amount of fuel.  I suspect that it's a huge gain by that standard.  The political and other risks are also reduced enormously.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 19 Nov 05

Why do so few talk about the secret machine that absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, aka the "plant" ?

If we have to plant millions of square miles of the US with cannabis or bamboo - fast-growing, CO2 sucking monsters - so what ? Isn't it worth it ?

To date we have experienced relatively little global warming. As the Siberian permafrost (for example) thaws, it is projected to emit millions of tons of methane. That is, the small amount of global warming we have experienced will trigger a much larger amount (of global warming).

I suggest it is worth taking extraordinary measures to lasso global warming.

I emailed with a person at the David Suzuki organization in Vancouver. I concentrated on 2 questions -
1. Is the methane release which will be triggered by a small amount of CO2 related global warming "really that big of a problem ?" "Yes", was the answer.
2. Why don't we cover the area in question with millions of square kilometers of sealed greenhouses ? (and find a way to capture and possibly package and sell that methane ?) "The technology doesn't exist." WRONG ANSWER. The technology does exist - it's called a greenhouse.

I like a warm swimming pool as much as the next person. But I'm quite happy with the Pacific at 55 degrees F in my neck of the woods !

If ever there was a case of asymmetric risk, this is it. If we're going to worry, we ought to worry accurately ... but we can't know the future precisely.

It is absolutely worth busting our buns to cap global warming at a few degrees.

But it doesn't look like the US government will be providing any leadership in this regard.


Posted by: roger V6E1E2 on 19 Nov 05

We have overshot the planet's carrying capacity, courtesy of cheap and abundant oil. We can start the path to a post oil abundant future now or later. A conscious attempt at a relatively soft landing may alleviate some pain and suffering, if we're lucky, ingenious, and realistic.

Continuing with business as usual, desperately searching for ways to retain our lifestyle and our population into the indefinite future will lead to a catastrophic result.

Hundreds of thousands are suffering and dying now because of global warming. It will only get worse as we struggle to feed a drowth driven and energy deficient world. Those who are consuming as usual aren't doing anyone or any species a favor, least of all those who are starving or who are on the edge of starvation.

If I thought we could set firm goals for carbon emissions and stick to them, I would see lengthening the years of our oil dependency as a posssibly benign response to the problem. But as it is, that extra oil won't be used to help the inflicted, but will be gobbled up by the industrialized and industrializing world to continue our lifestyle as usual.


Posted by: tom on 19 Nov 05

Great post.


Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 19 Nov 05

A few things that I don't see mentioned here are:
1 the generating station needs to be near the oil field, which is often not convenient, since power line losses are a significant factor unless your city is near an oil field.

2 It requires a significant amount of energy to pump this CO2 into the ground.

3 If this article is proposing burning oil in power plants, that is crazy. Oil/gasoline/diesel is the only fuel we have to run current cars on. It would be better to ship coal in to burn in the plant and sequester, since coal burns so much dirtier than oil and sequestered burnt coal is better than burning coal in the air.


Posted by: macrumpton on 19 Nov 05

@ V6E1E2: we're already reaching the stage where plants do no longer absorb CO2 but emit it! During the heatwave of 2003 in Europe, Europe's biomass emitted more CO2 than it absorbed:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4269066.stm

Once these heatwaves become commonplace here and elsewhere, just planting more green stuff won't change a thing. New research even finds that rain-forests too become CO2 producers instead of absorbers, once they're triggered into fighting against drought.

That's why Jamais is right: cutting CO2 from hydrocarbon use is *ultra-important* and *ultra-urgent*. It must be done now, or a host of processes will reach a tipping point after which we can no longer intervene.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 20 Nov 05

Its too late. The tundra melt is already unstopable and likely was before anyone coined the term global warming.

Oh and worldwide its estimated at 200 plus BILLION tons of methane will be released.

May you live in interesting times.


Posted by: wintermane on 20 Nov 05

Okay, let's see if I have this right:

130 million barrels of crude oil at 300.7 pounds/bbl and a chemical formula of CH2 contains 16.8 million tons of carbon and burns to produce 61.4 million tons of CO2.  In the process of producing this much oil, 30 million tons of CO2 is sequestered (49% of the amount produced).

If that oil was produced anywhere else, it would have a net emission 100% of the product when it was burned, not 51%.  On top of that, the oil does not:

  1. Profit any sponsors of terrorism.
  2. Send money off the continent.
This is a huge win.  HUGE.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 23 Nov 05



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