Rule Four of Offsets: No Enhanced Oil Recovery

no_oil.gifCapturing CO2 and injecting it into a well to squeeze more oil out of the ground is not real carbon sequestration. Why? When the recovered oil is burned, it releases at least as much CO2 as was stored (and possibly much more). Therefore, CO2 used for such enhanced oil recovery (EOR) does not reduce net carbon emissions and should not be sold to the public as a carbon offset.

Yet a company, Blue Source, LLC, proposes to do just that, to capture the CO2 from a fertilizer plant, pipe it to an oil field, and inject it into wells for EOR :

The company hopes to profit from the project by earning credits for the carbon reductions in voluntary carbon markets and by selling carbon dioxide to energy companies.

The deal will cut CO2 from the plant by about 650,000 tonnes per year by permanently storing the emissions in the oil fields, he said. The U.S. Department of Energy says that capturing CO2 from power plants for enhanced oil recovery could greatly boost U.S. oil reserves while permanently keeping CO2 from reaching the atmosphere.

Uhh, no. To repeat, if the captured CO2 is used to extract oil that releases CO2 when it is burned, then how is that offsetting anything?

The key ratio is CO2 injected vs. CO2 released from recovered oil. Fortunately, BP and UCLA did that life-cycle analysis (subs. req’d) in 2001 and concluded, “the EOR activity is almost carbon-neutral when comparing net storage potential and gasoline emissions from the additional oil extracted.” And that may be optimistic. The study notes:

The results presented reflect only gasoline consumption but do not take into account the additional emissions that would originate from the refining process, nor the emissions arising from the combustion of the other products of crude oil such as diesel, bunker or jet fuels.

In short, the CO2 used to recover the oil is less than the CO2 released from that oil when you include the CO2 released from 1) burning all the refined products and 2) the refining process itself. Doh!

But wait. The study has a different conclusion: “utilizing captured and recycled CO2 instead of using CO2 exclusively from natural reservoirs reduces greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere from EOR.” Well, yes, most CO2 used for EOR today comes from “natural reservoirs.”

But the nation and the world have barely touched the full potential of EOR even though it can potentially double the oil output from a well that has undergone primary and secondary recovery. Why? As a Department of Energy press release on an EOR-sequestration project noted, “much of the CO2 used in similar U.S. EOR projects has been taken at considerable expense from naturally occurring reservoirs” (tip of the hat to The Energy Blog and The Oil Drum, which has a good discussion of the EOR-climate issue).

Cheap, widely available CO2 would be a game-changer.

The DOE has studied EOR a great deal and come to an amazing conclusion. In the U.S. alone, “next generation CO2-EOR technology” and “widespread sequestration of industrial carbon dioxide” could add a stunning “160 billion barrels of domestic oil recovery.” The combustion of that oil would produce more than 60 billion tonnes of CO2, equivalent to ten times annual U.S. CO2 emissions.

Nothing could be closer to genuine greenwashing then charging the public for offsets that are essentially subsidies of oil production.

Some environmentalists have said to me that allowing CO2 for EOR in a few demonstration projects could jumpstart the carbon capture and storage market. But we don’t need to waste time demonstrating how to store CO2 in an oil well — we know how to do that and it isn’t very useful for mitigating climate change, as we’ve seen.

We urgently need to begin demonstrating permanent injection into large deep underground repositories such as a saline aquifers — and we need to start identifying and certifying dozens of those repositories around the country and around the world. That could take a decade or more — and so we’d better start now if we want carbon capture and storage to make a major contribution to avoiding catastrophic global warming.

We need to get busy with real sequestration and not subsidize the production of more greenhouse-gas-generating fossil fuels with the sale of phony carbon offsets.

13 Responses to Rule Four of Offsets: No Enhanced Oil Recovery

  1. Paul K says:

    Even with best case technological advances, we will depend on oil for transportation for twenty to twenty-five years. We are going to burn oil regardless of source. Using oil from captured CO2 EOR certainly sequesters more CO2 than using non EOR oil. It may not be the best step, but it is a step, one of many we’ll need to take to eliminate greenhouse gases. There are also geopolitical reasons to promote ways to reduce our use of foreign oil.

  2. While many of your statements on broad market issues are on track and while you have a sound grasp of several carbon economy issues (a welcome relief with so much miss-speak today), you don’t have the correct facts on Blue Source’s Kansas project and I don’t believe you have the correct supply/demand reasoning on the implications of oil produced from EOR when injecting vent stack-sourced CO2 without competing underground sources of CO2.

    First, the Kansas/Oklahoma project (a miss-speak): The CO2 from the Coffeyville project is expected to “replace” alternative underground sourced CO2. If this does indeed happen and the project is constructed, no more incremental oil will be produced as a result of capturing this vent stack CO2 at Coffeyville than would have been produced “anyway” and vent stack-sourced CO2 will incrementally be sequestered. The exact final destination of the Coffeyville CO2 has yet to be determined, however. I am a co-founder of Blue Source and I don’t know the CO2’s final destination as we have not completed several key steps in the project development stage. You reached your conclusions and published without knowing the full story. A common mistake in the carbon world today as everyone is rushing to get their opinion published to prove their point. If you have knowledge of the location of CO2 pipelines in Texas and Oklahoma and know the Coffeyville location, you can likely figure out where we are considering laying the pipeline.

    As for injecting vent stack-sourced CO2 when no other sources of underground CO2 are competing for the EOR project: I am familiar with the BP study and would agree with many of the calculations on CO2 emissions from a barrel of oil. It should be noted that there are many other factors not covered in this calculation that materially change the end result: emissions associated from the transportation of the oil to the refinery (domestic oil obviously has less as a raw stock and even far less as a refined product), imported oil “net” emissions due to quality issues from refining (approximately 1/3 more than domestic oil), and the big whopper…building out the carbon infrastructure necessary for long term CCS in saline or depleted hydrocarbon reserves “on the back” of oil revenues. Today, we have over 3500 miles of CO2 pipelines (a start to this infrastructure) put in place on the backs of oil revenues. The US will likely need to spend between $30B and $50B in infrastructure to make a dent in CCS. The industry needs VER or Offset revenue streams in order to reach further and inject deeper so that when only offset income is available the system will have significant sunk pipline

    You clearly have more than just a mild grasp of the infrastructure issues. Thank you for spreading some of that knowledge around.


  3. Jacob says:

    The “cap and trade” scheme is just like the old Soviet five year economic plan.

    Greens (aka lefties) have a firm belief that is government applies just enough coercive power, anything can be made to work. But in the real world, some things work, and some don’t. The five year plan didn’t.

    The cap-and-trade scheme adopted by Europe is a scam, has produced exactly zero reduction in CO2, and just hampers the economy for no benefit at all.

    When will you learn the futility of “good intentioned” giant social engineering schemes, backed up by force ?
    Don’t be blinded by your ideology, in real life it won’t work.

    Besides, don’t you see that when blackouts become frequent because you are hindering the building of new power plants that really supply power (not green feel-good), the public, the voters will kick you out. There is no way you can make people suffer blackouts just for “the future generations” (false) meme.

    And stop believing in fairies. There is no green energy. And there is no life without energy.

  4. Jacob says:

    This post shows how greens hate oil, and coal, and and hinder the production of it, and building of new power plants or refineries. (it’s for the planet).

    They believe in some mysterious notion of “green energy” that just does not exist. They believe that if people are forced to sit in the dark (because of blackouts) they’ll go out and invent green energy. They believe that by using brute force you can make people invent anything.

  5. Paul K says:

    Jacob is obviously wrong. There is plenty of “green” energy. Hydro-electric is well established. Wind and solar will become more competitive as time passes and technologies improve.

  6. jcwinnie says:

    Whaddya, kno, lotsa BAU (and above all else) commentary to this post, Joe. You must have hit a nerve.

  7. Joe says:

    You are right, jcwinnie. People are stuck in BAU.

    The key premise of this blog — as underscored in the three recent posts on how scientists are underestimating climate change — is that we need to reduce CO2 emissions 60% to 80% by 2050, which means we need to reduce fossil fuel consumption by that amount. It won’t be easy. It particularly won’t be easy if we start subsidizing enhanced oil recovery by calling it carbon offsets.

    We don’t need HIGHER production of oil, and certainly not from EOR. Offsets are a voluntary donation to displace one’s CO2 emissions, and thus should meet very high environmental standards. They can’t solve the climate problem, but they can serve a valuable purpose of funneling money toward jumpstarting the transition to a clean energy economy. EOR is not part of a clean energy economy and does not — and should not — be “jumpstarted.”

    So Paul and Bill — I can’t agree with you. I would like to see a comprehensive apples-to-apples life-cycle analysis comparing CO2 EOR to regular oil, though.

    Jacob — I am not a “green,” I am an energy analyst and technologist. I don’t hate oil and coal — I just hate what their emissions of greenhouse gases are doing to this planet. I don’t want to hinder production of oil, I just don’t wants to subsidize even more production of it.

    As for coal, you missed the whole point of my post. The only way to save coal in the long-term is through carbon capture and storage, which we have not seriously begun pursuing.

    I think jcwinnie’s point is well taken. People are stuck in BAU, even those who are concerned about global warming.

  8. Earl Killian says:

    What I don’t understand about posters like Jacob is that they are quick to complain when someone proposes solutions to a extremely serious problem, but they have no solutions of their own to offer. In effect by only complaining they propose doing nothing (i.e. BAU), which would be a disaster. Not solving the greenhouse gas pollution problem we have is *not* an option. BAU is about as wise as standing on the train tracks when the locomotive is bearing down on you because you think there is a chance there might be poison oak at the side of the tracks. First, it might not be poison oak at all, but yummy blackberries instead. Second, you can take actions to protect yourself from poison oak, if that is what is there. Third, poison oak rash is a lot less of a worry than being flattened by a locomotive. I don’t understand what they are missing.

    Also, this constant griping that the government cannot solve problems is hard to understand. Under Nixon’s we got the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), EPA (1970), Clean Air Act (1970), Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 (commonly referred to as the Clean Water Act), Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972), and Endangered Species Act (1973). Under Ford we got the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) and Toxic Substances Control Act (1976). Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987 and it was ratified in 1988. George Bush Sr. signed the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 that regulated more pollutants and implemented a cap-and-trade system that succeeded beyond all expectations. All of these solved real problems and we’re better off because of them. (I wish some had been more effective than they were, but they were definitely an improvement over BAU at the time they were signed.) Joe could no doubt tell the Clinton legacy much better than I.

  9. Jacob says:

    Joe: “I am an energy analyst and technologist.”

    I’ve read your bio here

    Could you point to some real, tangible solutions that you have invented, or helped develop , as a M.I.T. Ph.D. in physics ?

    Something beyond words… words and more empty words.
    Don’t answer, just think about it. Aren’t your talents wasted on being a propagandist ?

    By the way – are you also an expert in hydrogen, as it says there ? Where has hydrogen disappeared nowadays ? The way of those abandoned wind farms in California ?

    “but they have no solutions of their own to offer.”
    Neither have you. Don’t dream. You’re just emitting more and more hot air… there is no substance to all your solutions, just feel-good empty, illusions.

    A remark: when blackouts happen, as is normal in many countries (mainly in the third world) people buy home generators and produce pollution three time greater than power stations.

    “We don’t need HIGHER production of oil”
    That’s green ideology in a nutshell.
    The demand for energy is rising, we DO need HIGHER production of oil, there is no other energy available, and capping oil production means – no energy.

  10. Brian says:

    If CCS (carbon capture and storage) is going to be a reality, then the technical feasibility needs to be assessed…the petroleum industry’s involvement in this is important. I would agree that from a simple offsetting ‘equation’, secondary/tertiary recovery via C02 injection does not do the job….but, on the other hand, from realistic and practical point of view, we need to figure out the best way to do this. It’s far more complicated than just saying ‘we should inject C02’. Period.

    The idiotic (and, in my view, mythical) polarization of this issue is deconstructive…and both end-member ‘sides’ are to blame. It’s time to work collectively…and the petroleum industry and infrastructure is part of that. I hope people wake up from this ‘us vs. them’ absolutism soon.

  11. Joe, I did not realize you authored “Cool Companies…”. I read it years ago and thought it was well conceived and delivered. That book was one of the first volleys that described in practical terms what companies could do. Great job. Bill

  12. don hennick says:

    Lets give it a name
    I say Global Carbon March
    Inter our exhaust

    I don’t see any mention on your web site of Pyrolysis or Agrichar . Do you have projects in the planning stage on the carbon sequestration front?

    The more you learn about this ancient technique of soil restoration the more you’ll see how elegant this solution can be for carbon sequestration, for us all.
    Imagine putting the carbon tax funds into the hands of millions of peasant farmers all around the world, building their soil and their net worth at the same time. Please search “AGRICHAR” “BIOCHAR” or

  13. we need to fully explore all EOR if we are gonna ever become self sustaining.