By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News 

With low prices already advantaging natural gas as a preferred choice for new electricity production, federal officials issued regulations in March that will require new coal plants to have technologies to reduce emissions of climate-altering carbon dioxide. Coal produces considerably more CO2 than natural gas when burned.

Major environmental policy changes often occur in fits and starts. Texas officials and others are pursuing court challenges to the Obama administration’s designation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act – the legal basis for the new coal rules. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, has pledged to try to amend the act to exclude regulation of CO2 if he is elected.

If the new power plant regulations do move ahead, however, it will mean new coal plants must be designed to prevent much of the otherwise-emitted carbon dioxide from entering (and warming) the atmosphere. The captured CO2 would be stored underground or, perhaps, used to boost waning production in older oil fields.

Environmentalists, who have often criticized the administration for not moving forcefully enough against manmade global warming, applauded the new coal regulations, while Republicans and coal industry officials decried it.

The Edison Electric Institute, which represents most electricity producers in the country, complained, for instance, that carbon-capture technologies will not be “commercially acceptable” for years to come, and the new rules jeopardized “the viability of coal, an important domestic energy source.”

As a number of recent events have underscored, however, Texas – largest coal consumer among the states and a key focal point for politicians’ protests against federal regulations to curb greenhouse emissions – is also a place with activity aimed at advancing carbon-capture capabilities that indicates both the potential and the pitfalls.

Three Texas plants

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s description of the new rules included this statement:

The proposed standards can be met by a range of power facilities burning different fossil fuels, including natural gas technologies that are already widespread, as well as coal with technologies to reduce carbon emissions. Even without today’s action, the power plants that are currently projected to be built going forward would already comply with the standard. As a result, EPA does not project additional cost for industry to comply with this standard.

Previously announced plans for three new coal-fired power plants in Texas do include measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The one project of the three that notably has moved ahead in recent months, however – Summit Power Group’s Texas Clean Energy Project in West Texas – received a $450 million federal grant last September that will cover about a fifth of its estimated cost.

In February the Odessa American provided a status report on the plant, which would capture about 90 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions for use to enhance oil production:

Summit Power Group has reached another milestone that officials hope will lead to financial closing and a groundbreaking by July for the at least $2.5 billion energy plant project to be built in Penwell.

In recent weeks Summit signed construction and engineering contracts and a 15-year operations and maintenance contract for the Texas Clean Energy Project, the coal-gasification plant blessed in September by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“The significance of getting these construction and maintenance contracts signed is that we are now able to show investors the exact price construction schedule of the project,’ said Laura Miller, project manager for Summit. “Until now we’ve been able to show investors the signed contracts for the products we (would) make, but we haven’t been able to show them the price.”

The newspaper added that besides securing the DOE grant last year, the project had entered contracts to sell electricity, CO2, and urea for fertilizer.

A second planned coal-burning project, the Tenaska Trailblazer Energy Center, to be located near Sweetwater between Midland-Odessa and Dallas-Fort Worth, would “be designed to capture 85 to 90 percent of the carbon dioxide produced by combustion and deliver it via pipeline to Permian Basin oil fields for use in enhanced oil recovery and ultimately, geologic storage,” according to a company description.

Greg Kunkel, Nebraska-based Tenaska’s vice president of environmental affairs, told Texas Climate News by email that the new EPA rule for power plants built in the future “would require emission controls similar to Trailblazer for all future coal-fired generation. Trailblazer is designed to perform much better than the proposed standard.”

The Abilene Reporter-News reported in April that Tenaska “has been forthright that Trailblazer may not be built without federal financial incentives,” noting that the company declared in a 2011 report that “based on current oil and electric prices and federal support,” it “would not build a coal-fired plant with carbon capture in ERCOT [the region where the electric grid is operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas] between now and 2030.”

(The relative attractiveness of natural gas to power plant builders was demonstrated in news from Illinois last week. The Chicago Tribune reported that Tenaska had offered to switch from coal to natural gas for a controversial power plant it wants to build in that state. Opposition to the project has focused on pollution from the planned coal gasification process, with carbon capture and storage technology, and on a company proposal that would compel Illinois ratepayers to buy power from the plant. Substituting natural gas for coal “would reduce [the $3.5 billion] construction costs by two-thirds and could diffuse opposition to the plant,” the Tribune added.)

A third proposed coal plant in Texas – a second generating unit at the Coleto Creek Power Station, located southeast of San Antonio near Victoria – had carbon-capture features as part of its once-promised design.

A still-active website [PDF] outlining the proposal says the plant owners are “looking ahead in anticipation of future carbon-capture regulations,” so the new unit “has been designed to be retrofitted with carbon-capture technology” in order “to minimize its carbon footprint while providing reliable, much needed electricity.”

A plant official told TCN by email, however, that the project is now on hold and the website information is “dated.”

(Besides the three proposals for new coal plants in Texas with carbon-capture technology, NRG has partnered with the University of Texas and others to build a federally funded demonstration project at its coal-burning Parish plant southwest of Houston. The captured carbon dioxide – 90 percent of emissions – would be used to boost oil production.)

Promoting captured CO2’s oil-field use

Skepticism about the science of manmade climate change (driven mainly by CO2 emissions, most scientists believe) and opposition to regulatory measures aimed at curbing those emissions are positions that many Republicans have strongly embraced in the last few years, especially in Texas.

Signaling opportunities for common ground between some Republican officials, at least, and climate-action advocates, a proposal aimed explicitly at “boost[ing] domestic U.S. oil production while reducing the nation’s CO2 emissions” recently received the strong support of a pair of Republican lawmakers from Texas (one a member of Congress and the other a state legislator). Both focused on the benefits for oil production in their praise.

The proposal, issued in February, was developed by the National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative (NEORI), “a coalition of industry, state, environmental and labor leaders” that was convened by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (formerly the Pew Center on Global Climate Change) and the Great Plains Institute. An announcement offered this summary:

The centerpiece of the group’s recommendations is a proposed federal tax incentive focused on companies that capture and transport CO2 [including industrial and power plants], not oil companies. NEORI estimates that the tax credit would quadruple U.S. oil production from EOR [enhanced oil recovery, using CO2 injected underground], to 400 million barrels a year, while reducing CO2 emissions by 4 billion tons over the next 40 years. The U.S. Treasury Department would administer the competitively awarded tax credit.

NEORI calculates that the program would pay for itself within 10 years through increased federal revenues generated by boosting domestic oil production, with an estimated net return of $100 billion over 40 years. The incentive would reduce the trade deficit by saving the United States about $610 billion in expenditures on imported oil over the same period.

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, who represents a West Texas district that includes Midland and Odessa, said that “finding new ways to access the resources we have already found will continue to be an important piece of our domestic energy strategy for years to come. EOR is a critical tool that allows us to do just that – it breathes new life into old fields. Expanding our domestic energy production remains a top priority for me and many of my colleagues. ”

State Rep. Myra Crownover, who represents a district in Denton County, north of Dallas-Fort Worth, and chairs the House Energy Resources Committee, sounded a similar note: “Increasing domestic energy production is essential to our national interest. Enhanced oil recovery combined with carbon capture and storage technology is one of the most promising developments for increasing the energy security of the United States.”

In addition to calling for a federal tax incentive, the coalition’s proposal cited a number of state policies, including several in Texas, that could serve as models elsewhere to help advance use of captured CO2 in oil fields. Crownover, a member of the coalition team that developed the proposal, called it “a valuable first step in the conversation regarding this important policy area.”

A blog article posted earlier this month on the National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative’s website by an official of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions explained the reasons for efforts to forge new linkages between climate-related and energy-production concerns. The writer was noting that an annual Carbon Capture & Sequestration Conference had become the Carbon Capture, Utilization & Sequestration Conference this year:

This addition [of “utilization”] reflects a new reality: in the absence of strong climate policy, the key driver of CCS [carbon capture and sequestration, or storage] innovation is the utilization of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (CO2-EOR). This is a little-known technique in which CO2 (usually drawn from naturally occurring underground reservoirs) is injected into declining oil fields to boost their output. It now accounts for about 6 percent of domestic U.S. oil production.

Those of us focused on climate change think about CO2 as the major greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. But to those in the enhanced oil recovery industry, CO2 is an essential commodity they need for their business. And, somewhat ironically, from their vantage point, CO2 is in short supply.

Toward more efficient carbon capture

Scientists at Texas A&M University led by chemist Hong-Cai “Joe” Zhou are working with an “emerging technology” – porous crystalline polymers known as metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs – in an effort to cut the costly power consumption of carbon-capture technologies at power plants.

An article posted this month on the website of A&M’s College of Science described the work:

While MOF come in an overwhelming number of varieties, Zhou says only a fraction is suitable for carbon capture. Finding that fraction and then maximizing its potential represents the crux of the tedious yet vital chore facing Zhou and his team. Compounding the complicated matter of piecing together the correct framework is the fact that only a handful of places worldwide conduct large-scale tests on carbon-capture techniques, given the energy industry’s somewhat understandable reluctance to implement such experimental, power-sapping processes. Zhou explains that even the most current state-of-the-art carbon-capture procedure would lead to a 30 percent parasitic power consumption, thereby significantly reducing the power plant’s overall efficiency.

On a brighter note (pun intended), Zhou’s group may have found a better alternative. He says they are in the process of constructing a unique subset of MOF that can capture carbon dioxide with extremely high selectivity while using much less power than what is required by commonly applied carbon-capture methods. The group’s goal is to create an MOF that binds only with carbon dioxide and is robust enough to withstand the harsh conditions of the flue gas, resulting in a more economical carbon-capture technique. If successful, it could significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide currently being emitted into the atmosphere.

Image credit: © Sally Wallis –