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Symposium highlights local opportunities, challenges of carbon storage

A well-attended gathering Friday at Cal State Bakersfield provided the clearest look yet at the challenges and opportunities ahead as Kern County gears up to become one of the nation’s top regions for addressing climate change through investment in carbon capture and storage.

The university’s inaugural Carbon Sequestration Symposium brought together dozens of scientists, industry professionals and policymakers for a broad, seven-hour examination of what it’s going to take to move forward with a technically viable but expensive technology that has sparked several local proposals but, so far, no working facilities.

A consensus seemed to emerge that CCS, as the technology is generally known, could be a key strategy for helping California and the nation reach carbon neutrality this century. But it also became evident Friday that a number of issues remain to be worked out in the areas of regulation and community buy-in.

Overall, optimism held sway.

“This future is achievable. We can do this,” Energy Program Chief Scientist Roger Aines at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory said in the first of seven hours’ worth of presentations and panel discussions.

But he added that the effort will prove to be a “huge lift” and that reaching important climate targets “is something that we all need to try very hard to get to, and we need to start now.”

There seemed to be no question Kern is ideally situated for such investment, partly because of its ample geologic capacity for permanently storing liquid carbon dioxide in depleted oil and gas reservoirs. The county also boasts much of the required infrastructure — gas pipelines, for example, helpful in gathering CO2 for injection deep underground — and a workforce suited to the kind of industrial labor required.

LLNL staff scientist Kim Mayfield presented a map showing Kern offers almost unrivaled CCS benefits as a “really exceptional location when it comes to geological carbon storage.”

“Kern County,” she added, “is really set up to be a leader in this space.”

To achieve the volume of injections that climate-change scenarios call for, numerous CCS projects will have to be built, presumably by private industry looking to cost-savings and revenue mechanisms such as cap and trade, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard and federal tax credits.

Challenges related to transporting CO2 from places where it can be either sucked out of the air directly or removed from a smokestack were a focus of Ken Haney, a strategic adviser in local oil producer California Resources Corp.’s carbon management organization. He said pipelines may be a better option to sending it by truck or other means.

But Haney said there needs to be a protocol established in California’s cap-and-trade program spelling out standards for tracking and monitoring storage of carbon. Another regulatory hurdle to overcome, he said, will be addressing seismic concerns to make sure CO2 doesn’t escape once it’s injected underground.

“There is a lot of permitting and a lot of regulations to do,” he said. “It is taking time. And we don’t have a lot of time.”

That last point was a concern for speaker Sarah Saltzer, managing director at Stanford University’s Center for Carbon Storage. Achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will require scaling up CCS very quickly, the equivalent of building an industry that roughly equals current global oil production.

“That’s a huge shift that we need to do,” she said. “We’re about three zeros behind where we need to be.” She noted CCS is growing by about 10 percent a year now and that it needs to speed up to 20 percent to 25 percent annually, or about 70 to 100 CCS facilities per year globally.

In Kern, one CCS project proposed by CRC, the local oil producer based in Santa Clarita, is undergoing a county environmental review. Three other projects are expected to enter the review process within months.

Several speakers touched on the need to engage with local residents and environmental justice advocates concerned about the energy intensity and leak risks associated with CCS.

Kate Gordon, senior adviser to the Energy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, said the nation won’t reach its climate goals without engaging with local communities. No community is exactly like another, and bringing along those that could benefit from CCS will require better outreach, she said, adding, “It’s a journey.”

Setting aside politics and old rivalries will also be important, observed one of the event’s attendees, former State Oil and Gas Supervisor Steve Bohlen, who now works in the director’s office at Lawrence Livermore.

Progress on CCS will be largely driven by the local community, Bohlen said. Perfect must not become the enemy of the very good, he added, and in Kern, leaders need to look beyond their political battles with the governor’s office.

“Sacramento’s not the enemy,” he said, and realizing that “is part of coming together.”

Another attendee, John-Paul “J.P.” Lake, head of Kern’s B3K collaboration that has identified CCS as a potential economic driver, said at the conclusion of Friday’s symposium that he hopes to set up a town hall-type forum in which community members can learn about CCS and bring forth their concerns and questions.