A Pipeline To Capture Carbon Dioxide And Store It Underground

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 4, 2018 6:22 pm
oil pipeline

A section of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Someday, similar pipelines could also carry carbon for storage. (Credit: Kyle T Perry/Shutterstock)

Capturing carbon emissions and locking them away deep underground could be a viable means of beginning to combat climate change. But, the industry needs a little help, researchers find.

While taking carbon directly from the air and sequestering it in rocks is far from a feasible scenario, capturing it at the source — power plants and refineries — is something that’s already being tested at some commercial operations. There, carbon dioxide from burning or refining fuel is separated out and and stored as a liquid for transport.

Eventually, it will be injected into deep saline aquifers or spent oil wells and trapped, keeping it out of the atmosphere. Though around 30 million metric tons (Mt) of carbon dioxide annually are stored in this way today, scientists estimate that up to 1,000 Mt, or one billion tons, will need to be stored each year to counteract the effects of climate change.

Putting the Carbon Back

It’s a daunting task, but one that the fossil fuel industry has shown support for. A coalition of major oil companies announced a $1 billion investment in carbon capture technology two years ago, and there’s hope that future research will bring down the cost of what is currently an extremely expensive endeavor. There is some financial incentive to scrub and store carbon emissions, though, and it comes, ironically, from the fossil fuel industry itself.

Carbon dioxide can be used to boost production at flagging oil wells; it causes the oil to expand and flow more freely, and can significantly boost production. Carbon used in this way will eventually be stored permanently within the wells, and there’s evidence that the process amounts to a net reduction in carbon emissions. That only holds true if the carbon is recycled from the air, though, and today less than a quarter comes from anthropogenic sources. The largest reason for this is cost: It costs more to recycle carbon than oil wells will pay for it.

Part of the issue is that there’s currently no large-scale infrastructure to support the movement of millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the places it’s produced to the places it can be used and eventually stored, like the Permian Basin in Texas. This creates a chicken-and-egg scenario where no one is willing to take on the risk of scrubbing carbon because there’s no way to transport it, and vice versa. The creation of a pipeline, though, would solve this conundrum and facilitate future carbon storage operations, helping us to more effectively combat climate change.

The solution, say two researchers from Princeton University, is to take a page from the construction of other utilities that we rely on to facilitate our modern lives. The highway system, water and electric utilities and telecommunications networks have all benefitted from significant government financing, and they could offer a blueprint for the creation of an economically sustainable carbon capture pipeline.

Incentives For Carbon Capture

They consider a few scenarios, but if the government and commercial sectors were to split the cost equally, they estimate that a pipeline connecting Midwestern ethanol biorefineries with Texan carbon repositories could be constructed for around $6 billion. Combined with recently passed tax incentives for carbon capture, they estimate that economies of scale should take care of the rest and carbon capture would become an economically sound business. They published their findings Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

With enough financing, the pipeline could carry 30 Mt of carbon a year, or enough to double global carbon capture, they say, and enough to fully support the demand for carbon dioxide in oil wells. Future pipelines could also carry carbon for permanent storage outside of oil wells, too.

The fossil fuel industry has proven adept at building continent-spanning pipelines to deliver oil to refineries — perhaps they can turn that expertise to pipelines compensating for carbon dioxide emissions as well.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • Mike Richardson

    I hope this pipeline doesn’t pass through any low valleys or hollows where people live. Look up the Cameroon, Africa disaster of the 1980s to see what a bad CO2 leak could do to people in low-lying areas. Not to mention, there’s still some question as to whether or not pressurized sequestered carbon dioxide will remain where it’s placed long-term.

    • V Dizzle

      Very familiar. Volume of Naturally occurring sudden burp if co2 (your example)>>Volume of pipeline release due to rupture. Orders of magnitude difference. Co2 dissipates over time at ambient conditions. Risk is quite low.

      • Mike Richardson

        The risk is unknown, depending on the pressure and flow rate of CO2 (likely high), whether the leak is small or a blowout, the geography of the the area around the pipeline rupture, and the proximity to homes. Somewhere, at some point in time, the combination of those factors could result in significant risk of a deadly accident.

        • V Dizzle

          Worst case is readily calculated, including max diameter, pressure, time for detection, and isolation. I don’t recommend losing any sleep. Most are remote. Good to be cautious, but not equivalent to the African disaster. Take care.

          • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

            YOU live there. NIMBY.

          • V Dizzle

            This is a non-sequitur. I do not in fact live near a proposed CO2 pipeline and did not state support or opposition to anything.

          • 7eggert

            Do you want to imply that because you don’t live there, you allow yourself to endanger these people and thus you deem yourself to be a good man?

          • Mike Richardson

            Don’t take this to mean I’m opposed to carbon sequestration — it’s a necessary step for addressing climate change, in addition to many other steps. I just think a pipeline will need to address some of the concerns I mentioned for public safety. Monitoring the line itself regularly would be one method, and perhaps paying for detectors in any homes within a certain distance of the line. It wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous as oil and gas pipelines, but the potential hazards should not be overlooked.

          • 7eggert

            I think it’s not a helpful step.

            Methane is much less dangerous than CO₂ as methane will rise to the atmosphere while CO₂ will stay down, also CO₂ will poison you at 8 % while methane will just prevent you from breathing oxygen.

          • Mike Richardson

            Methane is more dangerous based on being more explosive — sorry if I was being unclear, but I meant that gas pipelines have killed quite a few folks by blowing up, particularly in the U.S. where our infrastructure has not been properly maintained. CO2 can suffocate you, which was my initial concern, but I wanted to make sure the danger was put in proper perspective by comparing it to other pipeline hazards.

          • 7eggert

            I can agree in that regard. I hope not to find out who “wins” in a competition there.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

        The risk is lethal, ever-present, and unstopppable re Porter Ranch, CA huge underground idorized natural gas storage. A “discovered” little leakypoo vented some 100,000 tonnes of methane.

        • V Dizzle

          OK, I’m done. Underground natural gas storage is NOT in any way similar in threat profile to a CO2 pipeline. I give up. Good luck.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    “Carbon sequestration” is an astoundingly stupid thing to do. Carbon dioxide is emitted in every step to power the process. A fossil fuel power plant whose stacks are concentrated CO2 cannot capture and sequester ifs carbon emissions for less than 30% of its energy output. Thermodynamics cannot be cheated. Add non-deal operation at every step and it approaches 50%..

    Carbon dioxide-water clathrate is much more stable than methane-water clathrate. A pipeiine of cold pressurized CO2 must be dried to sub-ppm water or it progressively clogs. Drying belches carbon emissions

    Enviro-whiners love Red Queen races.

    • OWilson

      You have no empathy for humanity Uncle Al :)

      I’m still worried about the high speed traffic mayhem they caused by building that death alley Interstate Highway System!

      “Highway deaths rose 6% in 2016, and some blame the economy” – CNN (40,000 deaths per year!)

      So much to worry about, so little time! :)

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

        There is an entire city within Los Angeles wherein every resident – without exception! – is absolutely free of worry and endangerment. How is this possible within the Soviet of California? “Forrest Lawn.”

        The North Side of Chicago hosts 350 acres (founded 1859) of 100% voter turnout.

        You are responsible for your fate. Though life may be harsh and overall meaningless, day by day high scores matter.

        • OWilson

          Now you mention it, I’m also worried about the incessant growth of cemeteries eating up the Earth’s limited space.

          They stack whole families one on top of the other in 25 story city blocks, but the dead have their own little parkette for ever!

          Cremation should be mandatory! :)

      • 7eggert

        In Germany, the highways are the most secure roads, with country roads being twice as dangerous (and also going through villages, where people will go well past speed limits).

        • OWilson

          Crossing the street is dangerous too, but we have to have some perspective on life, or we will need a government minder to go shopping with everybody!

          • 7eggert

            So should we remove zebra crossings after doubling their number and seeing about twice as many accidents on these? Or should we look at how the total numbers changed, better yet on the numbers corrected per capita crossing streets?

            Is it our goal to not have people killed on zebra crossings or to not have people killed?

          • OWilson

            You obviously haven’t been outside your own neighborhood!

            I’ve traveled the world, and the last “zebra crossing” I saw was on the cover of “Abbey Road”! :)

          • 7eggert

            Less safely because the cars don’t stop for me.

    • 7eggert

      As an “enviro-whiner”, I state exactly the same reasons not to do that. Instead I see “conservative” (in the US: Republicans) trying to get around really effective pro-environment-decisions by using Carbon sequestration to lower the officially amount of CO₂ being released from coal plants while also hindering the installation of renewable energy.

      My ¢¢: Buying fossile energy is expensive and we (Germany) become dependent on Putin and Pro-IS-Scheiks. Only local energy – even when not as reliable as a war on oil – will ensure prosperity in the long run.

      • OWilson

        If Putin decides to invade your country (again) your solar panels and windmills, might not help you! :)

        • 7eggert

          We will have power in spite of him not delivering oil.

          But more important: We do not need to keep him in power in order to keep having oil.

          • OWilson

            Glad to hear it! :)

          • 7eggert

            Unfortunately it’s not yet and not-hold-your-breath, but my wish for when we have clean energy.

          • OWilson

            We all share that wish, but we are up against the Laws of thermodynamics and Entropy, which states the amount of energy produced by a process, can never meet the energy required to convert it to a useful source. There is always waste!

            Wind farms and solar panel farms require vast (fossil fueled) manufacturing, transportation, and distribution resources available only from exterior financial subsidies (taxpayers) to make them viable.

            Even with that, the world’s 4 largest solar power companies have recently gone bankrupt, taking with them some $25,000,000,000.00 in taxpayer and investors subsidies.

            Con Edison

            You don’t see much about that in the MSM :)

          • 7eggert

            There is always waste, but we can chose the amount.

            Some energy sources, e.g. coal, have been payed for by millennia of swamp growth and burying it in the ground, not to be payed by it’s user, they are cheap (until they are used up). Others need to be payed by scarifying a river and a place to create a lake. Wind and solar needs to be payed by human labor – that’s most expensive for the one using it.

            This price does not reflect the cost a society has if it’s using one or the the other. Petrol saved the whales, but the whalers went bankrupt and Rockefeller gained a lot of money. It released dirt, but horse carriages did release more. In total, it seemed we were saved, too good to be true, unfortunately.

            A single horse apple hurts nobody, a street full of these and you have the great stink and pestilence. A little oil burned is nothing, but our amount is terraforming. Therefore we should limit excessive use of everything. Therefore we should combine the possible sources to avoid each sources’ cost for overusing them instead of strengthening old energy suppliers.

            (About the solar companies, I read news of our local ones, suffering from a trade war with China. It’s not much here either, and I didn’t dig.)

          • OWilson

            I know a little about waste.

            I came from a post war society that wasted very little. Food. and clothing were rationed and very scarce. Sugar, fruit and meat were luxuries.

            We had separate bins for food waste (potato peelings etc.) that were collected and sent to pig farms.

            Our coal cinders were used for our vegetable garden paths, and we actually competed with the neighbors to collect your hot, steaming “road apples”, to put on our vegetable gardens. (It produced great rhubarb, a cheap home grown fruit/vegetable we hardly see any more). We grew our own vegetables on every spare piece of open ground. All our terraced slums had access to community “allotments”, a left over from feudal “village green” days, where you could take your family on a weekend and plant root vegetables.

            Few people today consider that a preferred lifestyle, and I actually left it all behind to be part of the North American consumer society, where everything was available and cheap.

            That’s why, in retirement, I’m so at home with my third world rural neighbors. We have a lot of experiences in common.They produce most of their own food and like me don’t own a car. Very little is wasted. Whole communities live up in the hills, and are self contained. All family members pitch in, and don’t need “jobs” in our sense of the word. Family is paramount, and every member participates happily, picking and then shelling local beans for the pot, from 2 years and up. They laugh when I tell them they are more prosperous than I was, growing up!

            While I am an aetheist, I join them in church where they sing and celebrate their local community (not that big guy in the Vatican, that lives in abject luxury, with his own servants, his own palace, and his own army, Lol)

            They come there together to bind all petty neighborhood difference, and at the end, everybody smiles, hugs and shakes hands, sometimes reluctantly, and vows to help each other.

            But the young people want TV, internet, and Iphones, and that way of life will inevitably change, unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view!

            Even with all that, some accuse me here of being a tool of Big Oil, or actually on their payroll! :)

            It takes all kinds! Lol

          • 7eggert


          • OWilson


            If we all work together, (by choice! :) anything is possible!

  • http://www.biorootenergy.com Bioroot Energy

    The fossil fuel industry has proven adept at laying the global environment to waste (with lots of help by governments, corporations, financial institutions) by essentially turning modern humans into de facto polluters who produce and/or consume dirty energy and dispose of garbage and trash, nearly all of it petrochemically derived. To put any stock in this industry’s ability to sequester CO2 underground sufficient to avert climate disaster without first committing to keep most of the remaining hydrocarbon energy resources in the ground in the first place is a fool’s errand.

    Right up there in the energy/waste follies playbook with billions of humans pushing trash cans to curbs on trash day and letting the “waste management industry” take care of it. Or flushing toilets and letting “the wastewater treatment industry” take care of it. “It” is carbon waste and it doesn’t matter if it’s solid, liquid or gaseous, industrial, agricultural or personal; it’s carbon pollution with nowhere to go but the atmosphere, lands and waters of Earth and into the bodies of all living things. If this “extraction-dump” trajectory of industry, government and industrial society continues it will result in humanity entombed in the geologic record as a thin, black line of carbonaceous glop, along with the rest of the natural order.

    Nowhere is it written that humans have to roll drunk on petroleum or pay good money to use air, water and land as a personal, community, or industrial, dump. But there are billions of people with ready (convenient) excuses and a handful of industrial workarounds for carbon pollution that aren’t working “as advertised.”

    • OWilson

      The average “civilized” household depends on literally millions of miles of pipelines, water and sewers, gas, electricity, cable, telephone, roads and rail, bringing the energy and services you use every day right to your own very door!

      Your household contents, furniture, appliances, transportation and food are manufactured and brought to you from all over the world, curtesy of fossil fuels. Hospitals, schools and supermarkets are within hailing distance.

      Feel free to give it all up and find a plot of land to scratch a living from, knock a few pieces of furniture together without fancy manufactured tools, and hope that you or your family don’t break a leg or get a toothache in the middle of the night.

      Of course we’d never hear from you again to let us all know how you are surviving, unless you cheated, and kept that mobile phone! :)

  • Jacques Gauthier

    Why not compress Sargasso seaweed that wash ashore on beaches into biomass pellets and store those underground or in the desert ? When they are left to rot, they stay in the carbon cycle producing either CO2 or Methane depending on the conditions in which they rot. If they are stored in the desert, it will take decades for bacteria to decompose them although wandering herbivores may use them for food in which case, it will fertilize the desert soil encouraging plant growth. If underground, whatever gases produced by decomposition will be contained and not affect the climate.

    You store a lot more carbon per volume in solid form than in gaseous form.


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