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Study envisions CO2 reductions without reducing California oil production

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Roy Dowd, director of facility O&M and digester research at California Bioenergy, explains how the biogas digester next to him harvests methane. California Bioenergy has built several digesters in manure lagoons at dairies outside Bakersfield.

Bay Area scientists have identified a relatively low-cost path for California to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality in 25 years without cutting in-state oil production.

A new study out of Lawrence Livermore National Lab concludes the state can bury or offset 125 megatons per year of carbon dioxide by 2045 through land management practices, waste material processing, capturing atmospheric CO2 and storing the gas deep underground.

The findings draw upon technologies that have existed for years but have not been attempted at very large scale. They suggest the local economy might be able to avoid fallout from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality, in part, by managing the decline of California's Kern-centric oil industry.

Notably, the report also points to Kern's previously recognized geologic capacity for storing CO2 in oil formations deep underground.

Two ambitious "carbon sequestration" projects, one of which was abandoned in 2016 for various reasons, proposed permanently burying the gas in the county's western reaches. Both initiatives touted the dual value of sequestering CO2 and using it to promote local oil production.

Authors at Lawrence Livermore wrote in a summary of their report, "Getting to Neutral: Options for Negative Carbon Emissions in California," that the entire effort would cost less than $10 billion per year, or less than half of 1 percent of the state's economic output.

They said their plan would create new jobs, mostly in the Central Valley and northern counties, and have environmental benefits apart from achieving a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

"The value of pursuing negative emissions extends beyond carbon … and includes improved air and water quality, ecosystem health and resilience, wildfire prevention, exportable technological innovation and economic development in the Central Valley," the authors wrote.

It was unclear what state officials think of the plan. Emails to the California Geologic Energy Management Division, which as the state's primary oil regulatory agency has touted the carbon neutrality goal, went unanswered Monday.

Two environmental activist groups that have embraced Newsom's push to downsize in-state oil production — and the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment — also did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

The head of a prominent oil trade group, the California Independent Petroleum Association, responded with an email saying its member companies are looking for ways to make oil production carbon neutral or negative by burying greenhouse gases and promoting use of what he called renewable natural gas. RNG, as that gas is called, comes from dairy digesters and landfills, among other sources.

"While extremists envision a future without California oil," CIPA CEO Rock Zierman wrote, "this report shows how California needs our industry’s proven record on innovation in order to meet the state’s aggressive climate goals."

The report says 84 megatons per year of CO2 emissions can be rerouted by creating biofuels from "biomass" — sewage, manure, logging and other waste sources. It says carbon associated with such activities could then be buried.

Another 25 megatons per year could be avoided, the authors asserted, by "using the power of nature:" restoring woodlands grasslands and wetlands, among other land-management practices. Although this approach is inexpensive, it is also limited by land and ecosystem availability, the report states.

The final 16 megatons per year in savings could be pulled right out of the air using energy-intensive technology, the report says. The captured CO2 could then be buried in the Central Valley and the Salton Sea area, which has available geothermal heat, it says.

One potential complication is how to transport CO2 to burial sites. The report says pipelines make the most sense but that they involve "numerous logistical and regulatory hurdles (that) may impede pipeline construction."

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