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Oil industry advocates state action on carbon storage

Erik Bartsch

Erik Bartsch is president and CEO of Bakersfield-based oil producer Aera Energy LLC.

Environmental attacks on Kern County oil and gas production are increasingly being met with industry calls to move forward with carbon-burying technologies seen as helping the state achieve its climate goals while also creating substantial local employment opportunities.

The idea, voiced most recently by the new head of Bakersfield-based oil producer Aera Energy LLC, is that local oilfield operators have the expertise — and ideal access to vast geological formations — required to remove greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere or industrial emissions and store it deep underground in a process called carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS.

At least one such project proposed locally is in design stages, and the company behind it, Santa Clarita-based California Resources Corp., announced last month it expects to accelerate its work with CCS technology using "a number" of depleted oilfields in California.

Scientists with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have highlighted Kern's CCS potential, as have leaders of the B3K economic development collaboration. But to date no such projects have begun construction in California, nor does there exist the regulatory or financial framework needed to support them.

BETTER ALTERNATIVE?

Aera President and CEO Erik Bartsch said in a newsletter sent out Tuesday that California policymakers should embrace CCS instead of banning hydraulic fracturing, the controversial oilfield technique better known as fracking, which Gov. Gavin Newsom recently ordered an end to statewide by 2024.

Bartsch asserted the oil industry has the engineering and project management skills needed to develop competitive CCS projects — assuming the state contributes appropriate regulatory and legislative support.

"Creating legislative and regulatory pathways to encourage this industry to develop a CCS hub in the Central Valley is a win/win for the state and its people," he wrote.

Newsom's office says it's working on it. Asked for a response to Bartsch's comments, the governor's office affirmed CCS has a role in helping California meet its climate goals. But it also by email said the state needs to come to a better understanding of exactly where and how to proceed.

An interagency workgroup is working on coordinating different policy and regulatory efforts in support of CCS, Newsom's office stated, as the California Air Resources Board works to address what role carbon sequestration might have in the state's efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.

Among CARB's considerations on the matter, it said, is folding CCS into California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which forces oil companies to contribute financially or operationally to the fight against climate change.

CARB did not respond to requests for comment.

DIFFERENT FORMS

Carbon capture and sequestration can take different forms. It typically uses high amounts of energy to extract carbon dioxide from the air, or a specific waste stream, then turns it into a solid such as biochar or a liquid that can be stored underground.

CRC's project proposes to retrofit the company's 550-megawatt Elk Hills Power Plant with equipment allowing it to remove three-quarters of the CO2 produced at the site and bury it more than a mile underground. The company has estimated the project would bury up to 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking more than 300,000 passenger vehicles off the road.

One aspect of the process that makes CCS so attractive in Kern, besides the availability of large reservoirs where carbon dioxide could be stored, is the way CO2 can be used to promote local oil production by making thick crude less viscous and therefore easier to extract.

CRC has said the project would generate nearly 3,500 jobs statewide and more than $200 million in taxes during its three-year construction period, plus 150 permanent jobs and $200 million in taxes over 20 years.

Another model proposed by proponents of CCS would suck carbon straight from the atmosphere. Still another would take so-called biomass such as agricultural waste and use a process called gasification to remove methane or hydrogen and then bury the leftover biochar, which is said to increase an orchard or field's capacity to retain water.

AFFORDABLE SOLUTION

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore released a report early last year concluding California can essentially dispose of 125 megatons per year of carbon dioxide by 2045 through a combination of land management practices, waste material processing and CCS. Specifically noting Kern oilfields' CCS potential, it said the entire effort would cost less than $10 billion per year, or less than half of 1 percent of the state's economic output.

Leaders of B3K, a Brookings Institution-led effort that stands for Better Bakersfield & Boundless Kern, have also pointed out the local benefits of CCS, saying it would offer employment potential greatly exceeding that of solar- and wind-based renewable energy projects.

Aera, in an email separate from Bartsch's newsletter statement, noted that the International Energy Agency and a United Nations panel on climate change have advocated widespread adoption of CCS for meeting the challenge of global climate change.

"As California aims to meet its climate goals," it stated, "the state must adopt an all-of-the-above strategy that includes (CCS that incorporates industrial utilization of greenhouse gases) and facilitates the unique role that the state's oil and gas companies can play in providing the capital and technological expertise needed to move these technologies forward."