By Tom Frantz
Oil and gas companies are facing an existential threat in California. The governor and legislators have agreed that the use of fossil fuel must be phased out over the next 20 years if we are to have a chance at limiting global warming. In response, oil and gas companies are claiming that they can be carbon neutral or even carbon negative. This defensive posturing needs to be examined closely. It is easy to state a goal of carbon neutrality. The devil is always in the details.
There are two broad areas of carbon emissions coming from the oil and gas industry.
The first is the energy-intensive way they remove fossil fuels from the ground. This includes practices such as drilling and fracking plus emissions from creating and injecting steam for enhanced oil recovery. There are also methane leaks from valves, tanks and pipelines.
The second prominent source of greenhouse gas emissions is when the resulting fuels are combusted to provide energy for vehicles, industry and buildings.
Can all of these carbon emissions be effectively neutralized so they no longer contribute to global warming? Can we actually continue driving internal combustion powered vehicles and stop heating the planet? The fossil fuel industry is claiming four ways to get the job done.
First, they admit that there needs to be dramatic change with how energy is produced and used in the oil fields. This will include using solar panels and wind energy to generate the electricity needed to drill and pump oil wells. The combustion of biomass and biogas to make electricity and steam is also considered carbon neutral even though it puts more CO2 into the air than burning natural gas or even coal. Passive solar collectors can make steam as well. There is also the cynical idea that oil field workers could drive electric vehicles to their job sites.
Second, the leakage of methane has to be reduced by 99% through much more careful monitoring of pipelines and related infrastructure. Along with stopping leaks, there also needs to be substantially less flaring.
Third, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) can capture and bury CO2 from facilities that must still combust fossil fuel such as very large steam boilers and large cogen power plants. The captured CO2 can theoretically be injected deep and permanently into the ground. Often, it can also be used for enhanced oil recovery but ultimately stay safely sequestered for hundreds of years.
Fourth, assuming we will continue to consume fossil fuel for much of our energy needs, there needs to be a robust market mechanism for offsetting 100% of all remaining CO2 emissions from the use of these fuels. California’s cap-and-trade regimen plus programs such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard can supposedly be used to offset emissions from burning fossil fuel. Both of these credit trading schemes are supposed to be slowly reducing the carbon intensity of fossil fuel use.
Sounds good, right? We can continue to drive gasoline-fueled SUVs and heat our homes with natural gas if the fossil fuel companies reach their goal of carbon neutrality.
Unfortunately, all of these practices work in theory but they are all extremely expensive to implement and manage. It is far cheaper to convert 99% of our energy use to electricity and convert the production of electricity to solar, wind, wave, hydro and geothermal.
A little bit about CCS: California just put into practice a new protocol for CCS projects and how they can generate carbon credits for the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. A corn ethanol plant in Richardton, N.D., for example, recently proposed to capture CO2 from its fermentation tanks and pump it 5,000 feet beneath their small town of 500 people.
They will send the ethanol to California for mixing with gasoline and get credits for lowering the carbon intensity of what goes into our fuel tanks. They promise the huge underground plume of CO2 will safely stay where they put it for at least 100 years. Similar types of projects are being proposed for multiple sites throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
These are extremely expensive and dangerous projects. We will pay for them with much higher fuel costs, but we will continue to have polluted air.
Alternatively, we can convert our energy needs, including transportation, to clean, renewable energy and save money while preventing the worst of global warming, and simultaneously improving our air quality. The choice seems obvious, but we must remain vigilant against the oil and gas companies, which present false and unrealistic solutions.
Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ), he serves on its steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. The CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improving the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.