Climate scientists, politicians and activists dedicated to fighting climate change have a range of opinions about the best way to stem global warming. The oil and gas industry has settled on one that happens to help their bottom line.
Oil and gas executives gathered in Houston for CERAWeek — a leading international energy conference hosted by IHS Markit — say capturing carbon dioxide created by burning fossil fuels and keeping it from entering the atmosphere is the key to stopping climate change. The process, known as carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, would allow the oil and gas industry to thrive while keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere — at least in theory.
“Everybody agrees that we need CCS, at a large scale and affordable, CCS, if we’re going to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement,” said Terje Søviknes, Norwegian petroleum and energy minister, at CERAWeek. A wide group including everyone from Amin Nasser, the CEO of Saudi Aramco, to Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, echoed that sentiment.
The CCS process requires fossil fuel burners to capture carbon dioxide that would normally enter the atmosphere and then transport it to a place where it can either be used or stored. Many uses for carbon dioxide, including as a feedstock for construction and manufacturing materials, are already well established. Storing the pollutant is also technically feasible, but the process remains costly without a reliable financial incentive to do so like a carbon tax.
But despite the technology being scientifically sound high-profile failures, including an attempt at carbon capture in Mississippi that was halted when the project exceeded its budget by $4 billion, have also led to skepticism. And successes like a plant in Texas that uses carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery have faced the ire of some environmental groups opposed to more fossil-fuel extraction. Carbon capture and storage would not stop environmentally damaging practices like coal mining and fracking, some environmental groups argue.
Still, scientists studying the science of climate change say the process could play a critical role in keeping temperatures from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100, the goal laid out in the Paris Agreement. That scientific knowledge could then be applied to industry more broadly, helping stem emissions in high polluting sectors that cannot be easily electrified like cement, iron and steel production.
Patricia Espinosa, the head of the United Nations charged with addressing climate change, told TIME that UN scientific group that studies climate change sees CCS as “a component that is absolutely necessary” to stem climate change. “We need to have much more open and well-informed conversations,” says Espinosa. “What are the risks? How far has this technology come? Is it possible to take this technology to a more commercial stage?”
In the U.S., carbon capture and storage remains widely popular on both sides of the aisle and an area of collaboration while Washington D.C. remains bitterly divided. It is a rare climate change solution to enjoy support from environmental groups, trade unions and fossil fuel companies.
The breadth of that coalition helped secure a place for the technology in the budget deal President Donald Trump signed into law last month. The law, pushed by Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, among others, includes a significant tax credit for carbon capture. That measure will provide a tax credit to businesses for storing carbon dioxide underground to the tune of $35 per metric ton.
Energy policy experts say tax credits could be an essential step in promoting innovation that makes carbon capture a reality in more than a few niche cases. And it could not come soon enough to meet global greenhouse gas reduction targets, which the world has struggled to meet.
“The oil projections that we have, they are definitely not in line with the Paris climate goals,” Birol told journalists at CERAWeek, “unless we make use of one technology which is critical for the use of fossil fuels, which is carbon capture utilization and storage.”