Exxon Mobil and carbon sequestration
In previous posts here I’ve come out against Federal funding of research into carbon sequestration, specifically at the cost of not funding more promising green-energy technologies, and a recent article by Wall Street Journal writer Russel Gold nicely encapsulates why.
Carbon sequestration is the latest form of snake oil from the fossil fuel industry. According to its proponents, carbon sequestration will solve most of the problems associated with climate change brought about by burning fossil fuels. By capturing exhaust CO2 and shooting it into deep geologic repositories, energy companies using carbon sequestration will allow us to have our cake and eat it too. But there is no such thing as a free lunch, and carbon sequestration – if it can be made to work at all on a strategic scale – will not be cheap. Advocates promise added costs of carbon burial to your electric bill will be too cheap to meter… just as advocates of nuclear energy claimed, once upon a time.
According to Gold, the energy titan Exxon Mobil stands to gain much if CO2 sequestration goes forward. Exxon Mobil is primarily a petroleum company, and not coincidentally one effective technique for enhancing the extraction of deep or sluggish oil deposits is…. CO2 injection. Compress CO2 at high temperatures and inject it down an oil well, and the hot gas will expand and loosen tarry oil into a liquid more amenable to pumping up the well. It isn’t surprising that Exxon Mobil would know a thing or two about CO2 injection, because they and many other oil companies have used the technique for years, to great profit.
How much profit? In 2007 Exxon Mobil took in just over $40 billion, part of which was earned from oil brought to market using the best CO2 deep-injection technology on Earth. Literally. Exxon Mobil is Zeus to the pantheon of petroleum reapers on our planet, and they make no bones about their goal to find and sell every scrap of oil that is findable and saleable. Exxon Mobil possesses a research and development infrastructure that makes most national science programs appear quaint by comparison. They own the most sophisticated apparatus for harvesting energy that the human species has ever seen, including mountains of data from satellite, deep sea acoustic, seismic, gravimetric, geochemical, geomagnetic and stratigraphic exploration. Mountains of data that are secret and proprietary. Mountains of data that include the world’s most cutting-edge technologies for sending CO2 into holes in the ground.
And that is why the Feds should not fund CO2 burial research. The largest and most wealthy corporation on the planet already knows how to sequester CO2, and will be more than happy to sell others that expertise for a sizable markup. Most electricity in the US comes from coal, not oil, so the oil companies are not traditionally entwined with electrical utilities… at least not as incestuously as they are with the auto industry. Carbon sequestration offers the major oil companies a chance to expand their income base, which must seem quite attractive now that we’re past Peak Oil.
It’s not surprising that the oil companies are pushing CO2 sequestration, and it actually would be nice if they could make it work cheaply. Here’s to them. But it is absurd to ask the public to subsidize the largest and most profitable industry in the world. If carbon sequestration is so promising, let the oil companies pay for their own research and development. Gold’s article notes that Exxon Mobil is spending $100 million on tests of new technologies to strip natural deep-rock contaminant CO2 from natural gas. That sounds like a major investment, until one compares against overall company profits. Using their 2007 income, Exxon Mobil’s investment of $100 million into CO2 capture represents one quarter of one percent of their cash flow in a single year, or roughly as much as Exxon Mobil earns in one day. If their tests work one can be certain that ample money for more tests will be available in the corporate budget.
If CO2 sequestration has a future, the implementation of that future is already being worked out by the titans of the petroleum industry. There is no need to waste precious Federal funds – either through competitive grants or slimy earmarks – on developing something that the private sector is already at work perfecting. Instead, our national investments in energy research should go to promising and immature technologies… scientific research that is likely to have a big payoff, but to which no one with deep pockets is already tossing fortunes.