Tomlinson: Capturing carbon in the ocean fights climate change, creates jobs in Texas

The Biden administration approved Conoco Phillips’ Willow Project to extract 576 million barrels of oil over 30 years, a decision both legally and economically sound to replace power from other depleting Alaskan wells.

Scientifically, the project and its products will release 239 million tons of CO2 equivalent, the Interior Department said. To prevent the planet from warming further, we will have to remove 239 million tons of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere.

During the hydraulic fracturing debate, oil and gas companies asked regulators and the public to respect the science, which proved that fracking was safe when done correctly. Now the energy industry is faced with the science of climate change, which says that to sustain life on earth, we must remove more carbon than we will release in the next 30 years.

Carbon dioxide traps solar heat in the atmosphere. More CO2 means more heating. In 1960 carbon dioxide was 280 parts per million; today it is 420, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Based on the fossil record, it is the fastest increase in 800,000 years.

The fossil record also shows that exceeding 450 parts per million can trigger mass extinctions and major disruptions to weather patterns. To restore climate to the patterns observed for most of human existence, we need to drop to at least 385ppm, studies show.

The Paris Agreement and other climate plans only limit CO2 concentrations below 450. Based on current trends, we will rapidly exceed that level, report both the Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency. Humans pumped 36.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2022, and this is expected to rise.

Companies like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and BP have promised to reduce emissions by producing oil and natural gas. Occidental Petroleum is committed to capturing more carbon in its oil and gas wells than it produces. It won’t be enough.

We need to extract huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, reports the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Luckily, entrepreneurs and activists are creating plans to do it if they get paid for it.

At CERAWeek in Houston, dozens of companies presented their business plans for carbon capture from fossil fuel plants. But in Austin, entrepreneurs pitched ideas at the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals to reduce carbon concentrations.

Tree planting is an obvious and popular method, but forests can take decades. Planting a trillion trees is not enough.

The oceans absorb 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year and cover 70% of the earth. Since the Industrial Revolution, they have been working overtime, becoming more acidic and harming marine life. Yet the ocean can do more.

Marty Odlin grew up in a Maine fishing family and witnessed the collapse of the fishery. He founded Running Tide to fight climate change and bring jobs to his community by growing carbon-absorbing algae on buoys made of limestone, which counteracts acidification.

After three months, the weight of the algae sinks the dissolver buoy and sequesters the carbon, Odlin explained.

“Carbon removal is about mass displacement…and we’re talking about moving more mass than has been displaced in world history,” he told an SXSW panel. “The ocean is a great place to do that; you can get some influence from nature.

Other companies are experimenting with spreading iron dust into the ocean to boost phytoplankton growth. Some believe that applying lime will help the ocean absorb carbon more quickly.

Some technologies closely resemble those used by the oil and gas industry, explained Kate Moran, an ocean engineer who is CEO of Ocean Networks Canada at the University of Victoria.

Options include pumping cold water from the ocean floor to the surface, which would increase carbon uptake, and pumping seawater through an electrochemical process that removes carbon for underground storage.

Another proposal would replace offshore drilling rigs with direct air carbon capture devices powered by wind energy. Workers would inject carbon into old oil and gas fields. Moran dismisses concerns about such retouches.

“What do you think we are doing right now? We are doing the largest geoengineering experiment ever,” she said.

Responsible companies are funding these experiments. But the few billion dollars invested in carbon capture pale next to the $4.6 trillion spent on fossil fuels since 2015.

Chris Tomlinson, named 2021 Columnist of the Year by the Texas Managing Editors, writes commentary on money, politics and life in Texas. Sign up for his “Tomlinson’s Take” newsletter at or[email protected]

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