By Octavio Urosa, Babak Safari and Brendan Player

The primary goal of the energy transition is to reduce carbon emissions and protect the planet for future generations. The energy & resources industry is tackling this challenge by moving away from fossil fuels and towards forms of renewable energy. It’s a pretty simple concept: If we can generate energy from renewable sources, we can significantly reduce the carbon emissions being released into our atmosphere. But what about the carbon that is already there? And what about the time it will take to reduce the use of fossil fuels?

The global energy mix remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal, which account for an estimated 81 per cent of total energy consumption in 2022. And the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) forecasts suggest that this will drop only marginally, to 78 per cent by 2032. So, while reducing carbon emissions is essential to the energy transition, so too is removing the excess carbon dioxide that exists in the atmosphere already and the carbon that will be introduced over the following decades. We call this carbon capture and it’s increasingly being viewed as a means for existing facilities and new projects to shrink their carbon footprint—a critical challenge for the energy & resources industry.

The good news? There are many methods for capturing carbon both before and after fossil fuels have been burned and greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions are released into the atmosphere. These range from technology that can remove carbon straight out of the air to nature-based solutions that store carbon in plants and soils.

Let’s look at what carbon capture is, the technologies used to achieve it, how nature-based climate solutions can help, and why capturing carbon is essential to the energy transition.

Capturing carbon with innovative technology

One of the best ways to capture carbon is to capture it right at the source. This means capturing carbon either before or as soon as it is burned. For example, just think about the smokestack at a power plant and all that carbon dioxide pluming up into the atmosphere. Rather than releasing that carbon from smokestacks, we can instead capture it and either sequester it or put it to good use.

Carbon capture can occur in a variety of ways, including point-source capture at an industrial facility such as a power plant or manufacturing operation. Or atmospheric CO2 could be pulled straight from the air mechanically through the use of direct air capture technology.

Capturing carbon at the source could lead to a significant reduction in GHG emissions. Many in the oil and gas industry are looking to capture carbon to offset their emissions footprint. For instance, in Canada, our company worked with SaskPower to develop the Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Demonstration Project in Saskatchewan. The project is designed to reduce the emissions of a coal-fired power plant by capturing one million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. This not only helps to protect the environment, but it demonstrates to the industry and project stakeholders that SaskPower is following through on their climate commitments.

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In the United States (U.S.), we are working with two oil producers to evaluate and implement projects for pre-combustion and post-combustion carbon capture and sequestration.

The more carbon we capture at the source of the fuel burning, the better. But what about the carbon that we’ve already lost to the atmosphere? That’s where direct air capture (DAC) comes into play. DAC is a carbon capture technology that can extract carbon directly out of the air. The system essentially functions as a giant fan that pulls in air and treats it with chemicals that trap in carbon dioxide before the air with almost no carbon dioxide is released.

DAC is being viewed as a key pathway to decarbonization and reducing emissions already in our atmosphere. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there are currently 18 DAC facilities operating worldwide. But that number is set to grow as we continue to navigate the energy transition. However, there is a core challenge to large-scale adoption of this technology: more emissions. These DAC facilities are incredibly energy intensive. So, if we hope to develop more DAC initiatives, those facilities should be powered with renewable energy.

Luckily, this is being done already. The Orca Project, located in Iceland, is the world’s first large-scale carbon removal project. It consists of eight carbon collector containers that can each capture approximately 500 tons each year. The facility operates off energy produced by a nearby geothermal power plant, meaning it extracts carbon from the atmosphere using renewable energy sources. This is a giant breakthrough and a model that the rest of the world can follow.

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In addition, 1PointFive—a wholly owned subsidiary of Occidental—announced it was selected to receive a grant from the US Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED) for the development of its South Texas Direct Air Capture Hub. The hub, to be located on the King Ranch in Kleberg County, is expected to include the world’s first DAC plant designed to remove up to a million metric tons of CO2 per year. When it begins operations in 2024, DAC 1 is set to become the world’s largest direct air capture (DAC) facility. This landmark project is an important development that can help demonstrate the valuable and unique role of DAC for meeting net zero goals.

Capturing carbon with nature-based climate solutions

Another great way to remove carbon from the atmosphere is by implementing nature-based climate solutions (NbCS). NbCS are a practice being used to reverse the impacts of climate change by restoring, enhancing, sustainably managing, and preserving ecosystems that capture and sequester carbon. These environments can come in the form of upland forests, peatlands, grasslands, mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrasses. Through a process called biological carbon sequestration, these ecosystems absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soils.

The Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects more than 10,000 acres of valuable habitat for wildlife of all kinds. 

 

 

In addition to sequestration projects, there is an opportunity to adopt more sustainable management practices in silviculture and agriculture to reduce biogenic emissions, or those derived from land use practices. These NbCS not only reduce GHGs in the air, but also allow the natural environment to thrive. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that NbCS have the potential to provide up to a third of the climate mitigation needed by 2030, making these projects vital to the energy transition.

An example of NbCS are projects that protect and restore blue carbon ecosystems, which are habitats that directly interact with the ocean such as mangroves, marshes, and seagrasses. Our teams at Stantec worked with US Fish and Wildlife Services on the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge Restoration, a coastal ecosystem restoration project in Milton, Delaware. For years, Prime Hook had been hit hard by severe weather events. The biggest was Super Storm Sandy in 2012, which inundated the land ashore with salt water that flooded over roads and farmland. Our teams designed the restoration of vital systems and took measures to strengthen the shoreline so it could endure and thrive. This included both restoring the damaged shoreline and adding protective measures in the form of a beach barrier. All in all, we restored more than two miles and 10,000 acres of coastline!

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But we also wanted to determine the site’s impact on carbon emissions. So, we had our experts look into the potential carbon reduction that the revived ecosystem would provide. After investigating around 30 per cent of the restored marsh, we estimated this area was sequestering over 22,000 more metric tons of carbon dioxide over a 30-year period than the degraded system prior to restoration. So, not only did the project provide the surrounding community with increased resiliency from extreme weather events, but it also works to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Talk about a win-win scenario.

Carbon capture a critical key to the energy transition

As the world continues to press forward with the energy transition, carbon capture will continue to play a key role. While our capacity to capture carbon is not yet where it needs to be, there are strides being made to bring more large-scale facilities online. The IEA estimates that carbon capture facilities currently capture more than 45 Mt CO2 annually. They expect that figure to rise significantly by 2030. An ambitious goal to be sure, but with all the carbon capture techniques and technologies, we should be able to develop the infrastructure and environments necessary to achieve it.

Developing sources of renewable energy is great for reducing carbon emissions. But so is removing the carbon that could be emitted without the implementation of carbon capture (due to the use of fossil fuels), and the carbon that is in the atmosphere already. Whether capturing carbon with technology or with the use of nature-based climate solutions, we are leaving a cleaner, greener planet for future generations.

Octavio Urosa is principal of energy, Babak Safari is a decarbonization contractor and Brendan Player is a carbon sequestration expert with Stantec.

Featured image credits: Stantec.

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