How to keep 300 billion metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere

Photo: Total

Clearly, the most complex challenge of our time will be to make carbon dioxide (CO2) an industrial friend instead of a foe within just thirty years. All avenues are under consideration in the drive to move past infancy and create a full-fledged industry with the capabilities to manage CO2 before it is too late, from university research and strategic alliances to collective and individual initiatives among energy companies. Many players have highly advanced skills and expertise in this area. Total is one of them, and it intends to play a leading role in the world's new energy landscape.

Counting in billions

According to the International Energy Agency's calculations, between 5 billion and 10 billion metric tons of carbon will have to be captured and stored each year starting in 2050 to limit the increase in global temperature to 2°C. These numbers imply a transformation of the global economy unlike any the world has seen before. More specifically, the target means that the Earth's inhabitants have a little less than twenty years to turn an emerging industry into a sustainable one — comparable in size down the road to the oil industry — to capture, transport, utilize or store carbon dioxide, the designated culprit of climate change. What's more, this must be done at an acceptable cost. To get there, this heavy industry will have to grow by 10 percent a year, the same pace achieved by today's much more nimble and agile digital start-ups. It's a difficult circle to square, to say the least.

In October 2017, Total committed with its partners to a major research project designed to store 35 million metric tons of CO2 in Norway over 25 years.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is one possible solution for reducing the amount of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere. According to the International Energy Agency, CCUS will deliver 14 percent of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions related to energy production by 20601. Other solutions include improving energy efficiency; doing more with less; and increasing the use of renewable energies, which have become much less expensive in the last few years and enjoy strong government support.

These pathways may run parallel, or in some cases, compete. As Dominique Copin, senior climate advisor in charge of CCUS at Total, explains: "These technologies may rival with other methods for reducing carbon emissions. But for many applications — primarily in industry — renewables, for example, are not able to provide the desired energy performance. So CCUS definitely has its place. That's why we must continue to develop these technologies, which are and will remain in the forefront in terms of importance and value."

Competitiveness is key

While CCUS must meet technological challenges and win public acceptance, the crux of the matter is cost. "We are taking into account all of the factors that offer favorable conditions for developing CCUS," says Bruno Pahlawan, cross-functional R&D programs manager at Total. "Our mission as researchers is to find ways to make these technologies both more efficient and less expensive."

With this in mind, Total wants to play a more active role by becoming a leader in carbon storage and utilization technologies by 2035. As Copin notes, "Total has been a CCUS pioneer for many years. Between 2010 and 20162 the Group carried out a pilot project in Lacq, France that developed Europe's first integrated chain to capture, transport and store CO2 in a depleted gas reservoir. In all, 51,000 metric tons of carbon were injected into the reservoir at a cost of 100 million euros. In 2015, Total became a founding member of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), which created a fund to invest $1 billion over 10 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The OGCI has looked at how to reduce the cost of carbon capture and has produced reliable estimates of global carbon storage capacity, among other things."

"Along with these initiatives, Total is also involved in a number of large-scale projects," adds Pahlawan. "The Group's R&D is currently participating in research consortiums around the world, including the Norwegian CCS Research Center, to propose innovative solutions for speeding the industrial development of carbon capture, transportation and storage in the North Sea. We recently joined Technology Center Mongstad in Norway, one of the world's largest facilities for developing carbon capture processes, with the goal of preparing the ground for new emissions-reduction technologies by lowering their cost and environmental impact." Also in Norway, the world leader in CCUS, Total has been working with Gassnova, Shell and Statoil since October 2017 on a major research project to develop the world's first commercial carbon capture and storage site. The project aims to handle 35 million metric tons of CO2 over 25 years from industrial facilities in the Oslo region.

The climate won't wait

"Energy companies like Total are at the forefront of CCUS," says Copin. "Our vast knowledge of geoscience gives us an advantage in storage, particularly when it comes to understanding how carbon dioxide will move in reservoirs. We also have a great deal of experience in capturing CO2 molecules from natural gas. We will be able to leverage this expertise. Lastly, oil and gas companies have significant R&D resources, both individually and through partnerships such as the OGCI."

At this stage of development, the main challenges in CCUS are at the research level. But things will have to move quickly, because the climate won't wait. "The stakes are high, with short deadlines for this type of industry," explains Pahlawan. "Public-private partnerships will be crucial for accelerating R&D, as well as for deploying the industry and its infrastructure. That's another reason Total has entered into numerous agreements, including with competitors or with manufacturers in other industries and with academic partners such as universities."

It might seem odd to team up with rivals in a highly competitive industry that has been hit by a sharp decline in oil prices over the past few years. Pahlawan dismisses such considerations: "We must all promote CCUS to effectively limit global warming. We prefer to join forces to accelerate its development. The partners have a common vision and share results. That's a key success factor."

This joint approach should quickly produce results. Already, the outline of an industry that will no longer emit carbon or that is carbon neutral is taking shape — one that in a few decades will draw on a mix of solutions combining energy efficiency, full or partial dependence on renewable energies, CCUS technologies to reduce emissions or eliminate them at the source and, as a last resort, other offsetting techniques.

It's just a small step to go from there to imagining CCUS as an industrial aggregator. "There could be CO2 Hubs in industrial zones or ports, supply chain networks delivering carbon from emission-generating areas, and channels for recycling carbon to manufacture new materials and products," claims Copin. "And why not consider capturing carbon dioxide from the air if it becomes cost effective? There are already small facilities in Switzerland, Iceland and California that do that. Our job will be to validate the economic feasibility of these ideas."

Once all the many hurdles to managing carbon have been overcome, CO2 could move up the ladder from public enemy to industrial partner. We have less than two decades to build a global carbon economy. This includes, and even starts with, heavy industry. Thirty years in which between 150 billion and 300 billion metric tons of CO2 must be kept out of the atmosphere.

1 Source: International Energy Agency, Energy Technology Perspectives 2017.

2 The R&D project lasted six years: three years of CO2 injection and three years of monitoring to ensure that there was no adverse environmental impact.

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