An oilfield facility in western Kern County has emerged as a leading national candidate for demonstrating technology intended to bury carbon dioxide that would otherwise be vented into the atmosphere.
The U.S. Department of Energy recently agreed to help fund a study looking at the feasibility of retrofitting California Resource Corp.'s 550-megawatt Elk Hills Power Plant with equipment allowing it to capture and sequester three-quarters of the CO2 produced at the site.
Similar in some respects to the unsuccessful HECA carbon-sequestration project proposed nearby several years ago, the proposal is viewed as a possible model for reducing greenhouse gas emissions at other power plants around the country.
Scientists and policymakers have for years viewed carbon capture and sequestration as a promising opportunity to reduce emissions that have been linked to global climate change. But because of the expense and a shortage of practical examples, the idea has not been put into practice widely.
Santa Clarita-based CRC says its 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.
Like the HECA project, CO2 injected more than a mile underground at the site would also serve to promote CRC's oil production in Elk Hills, extending the oil field's productive life.
A CRC spokesman said by email the company hopes to have the project operational by mid-decade, adding that such an accomplishment would serve its 2030 sustainability plan, which it deems to be in direct alignment with sustainability priorities set by state government.
One of the government agencies with jurisdiction over the proposal, the California Energy Commission, said CRC's power plant "might be a great candidate" for the project.
But the commission has also raised concerns that will have to be addressed, including the historical inconsistency of the plant's output and questions about how to make sure CO2 does not rise to the surface during petroleum production.
"Any future effort to recover more petroleum from the reserve with different methods than employed today could result in recovery of the 'sequestered' carbon as well as the petroleum," an agency spokeswoman said by email.
She added that it is not clear who would have ownership over or responsibility for the sequestered carbon.
A technological and economic feasibility study is scheduled to be performed in 2020 by CRC in partnership with Palo Alto's Electric Power Research Institute and Texas-based engineering and construction firm Fluor Corp.
Officials at EPRI and Fluor could not be reached for comment.
The project was among nine power plant-based carbon-capture proposals selected for funding last summer by the Department of Energy. The agency said in a brief project description posted online that if the technologies used in the project are used successfully, "many existing U.S.-based plants might be able to be retrofitted."
The amount of taxpayer money granted to help fund the study was not disclosed, and agency officials did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
The $4 billion HECA proposal that was ultimately abandoned in 2016 at one point resembled CRC's proposal in that it was going to bury CO2 from a power plant and inject it underground for permanent storage and to promote oil production in western Kern.
But after oil giant BP and mining company Rio Tinto sold the project in 2011 to Massachusetts-based SCS Energy LLC, the project went through many changes intended to improve its financial profile.
With a $408 million federal subsidy commitment, SCS turning the proposal into a chemical plant that would also generate electricity at times of peak demand.
Coal and petroleum coke to fuel the plant was supposed to come by rail. The CO2 byproduct was originally going to be taken by Occidental Petroleum Corp. for the purposes of promoting oil production.
But when Oxy, then based in Los Angeles, moved to Texas, its California spinoff — CRC — walked away from the project.
Neighbors opposed the 450-acre project for reasons including its proposed use of anhydrous ammonia and local groundwater. They celebrated when SCS withdrew its application from consideration by an increasingly skeptical California Energy Commission.
A CRC spokesman said the new project differs from HECA in several respects. It would be self-contained within the Elk Hills oilfield, he noted, and it would capture CO2 from an existing facility. Also, he said it doesn't call for hauling in or storing fuel from elsewhere.