Amidst fanfare that carbon capture and storage can help sustain the fossil fuel industry while averting the climate crisis, Houston-based Occidental Petroleum’s quiet decision last year to sell off a flagship facility underscores the continuing challenges facing the technology.
For stakeholders banking on carbon capture and storage (CCS), the sale of Occidental’s Century facility in Pecos County, Texas, should be a warning that “the history of carbon capture is one of over-promising and under-delivering,” said Steven Feit, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law.
In a recent analysis, Bloomberg Green wrote that Century never ran above a third of its capacity in its 13 years of operation, though Occidental said it “continues to operate as designed.”
It would be a “mischaracterization” and a “false narrative” to use that specific facility as an example of overall CCS project performance, a company spokesperson said.
CCS has been promoted by oil companies and politicians for its promise to draw down emissions, even as oil, gas, and coal continue to be burned for energy. Technologies have aimed to either capture emissions at the combustion source, or to draw carbon dioxide out from the air. The former technology is cheaper and more established than its newer iteration, called direct air capture (DAC). Historically, companies have turned about 80% of the captured carbon into a revenue stream by using it to extract more oil from older, depleted wells, through a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).
So far, progress across only around 30 active CCS projects worldwide signals that the technology is slow and expensive to establish and delivers poorer performance than expected, said David Schlissel, director of resource planning analysis at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, in a presentation late last week.
And while CCS has been included as a component of many net-zero projections, many climate scientists say the technology is a distraction and should not derail efforts towards deeper emissions cuts.
Back in 2010, Occidental built Century as the world’s largest CCS facility, capable of processing 8.4 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. (For comparison, global CO2 emissions that year totalled 31.6 billion tons.) It was built into a fossil gas processing plant to capture emissions directly at the source and was expected to help increase the company’s Permian Basin production by 25%.
In the end, Century captured less than 800,000 tons each year—less than 10% of the anticipated total.
This underperformance stemmed from economic rather than technological issues, Bloomberg writes. Fossil gas prices dropped around the time Century came online and stayed low for about a decade, which curtailed production and expansion efforts.
“We just didn’t have the gas feedstock to support the plant,” said Paul Kindsfather, an operator at Century until 2013.
Last year, Occidental sold Century to the Mitchell Group, owned by oil magnate Malone Mitchell, for less than a quarter of what it invested in construction. A spokesperson said Occidental continues to “take and utilize all of the carbon dioxide captured” with a long-term commitment to do so.
Meanwhile, Occidental is moving to establish a number of DAC facilities, furthering a strategy to market what it calls “net-zero” oil and sell carbon credits for additional revenue.
Earlier this spring, the company unveiled a new DAC project called Stratos, expected to pull more than one million tons of carbon dioxide per year out of the air. Occidental has already sold carbon removal services for the project, with government and corporate support. It also acquired Canadian DAC company Carbon Engineering in August, and has announced plans to build 100 more DAC facilities.
Occidental is embracing these technologies “as a licence to operate,” said IPCC author Glen Peters, senior researcher at the CICERO Centre for International Climate Research in Oslo. But “there is no scenario that exists where you continue producing oil and clean up with carbon removal.”