Petra Nova: Incremental Progress in the War on Carbon

By August 10, 2017Blog

Though it might sound like a futuristic punk band—or maybe just remind you of failed television—the Petra Nova project is quite real. In fact, it is currently the largest retrofit post-combustion carbon capture system in the world. A collaboration between NRG Energy and JX All Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration, the facility uses carbon sequestration technology to capture more than 90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from Texas’ coal-fired WA Parrish generating station. That’s the equivalent of taking some 350,000 cars of the road every day. What’s more, Petra Nova accomplishes all of this in an economically viable manner.

That sounds almost too good to be true, right? Well, to an extent, it is; that economic viability is attained by recycling the captured CO2 to boost oil production at the nearby West Ranch oil field. The irony of using sequestered carbon to boost fossil fuel production will certainly not be lost on many people. To others, it might seem downright perverse. Indeed, some back-of-the-envelope math quickly dampens the rosy picture painted by NRG’s press releases. Current estimates predict that the CO2 harvested at Petra Nova will boost oil production by 14,700 barrels per day. At .43 metric tons of carbon dioxide per barrel, this added oil therefore translates into roughly 6,300 tons of daily greenhouse gas emissions…or 1,300 tons more than the carbon sequestered daily by Petra Nova.

There is still cause for celebration here, however. By incorporating a massive carbon offset as a viable part of oil production, Petra Nova has contributed to one of the most carbon-friendly oil manufacturing processes in the world. Thus, while it may be incremental, progress has still been made. That may not be satisfying to environmental purists. Regardless, this represents an important step in the practical reduction of our nation’s CO2 emissions.

For better or for worse, America’s 100% renewable future is still a long way off. Claims to the contrary are significantly flawed and ignore many of the economic realities surrounding domestic energy production and consumption. That is not to write off renewables altogether; wind and solar have become an important part of the clean energy landscape, and investment in these fields needs to continue.

But just as much of the carbon reduction achieved over the past decade can be attributed to fracking, so must future efforts look to solutions across the entire spectrum of available options. That means retooling our infrastructure and technology for greater energy efficiency. That means relooking at fission and continued investment into fusion. And yes, that means projects that make our still-ubiquitous use of fossil fuels greener.

Petra Nova, by proving that coal and carbon-friendly can coexist, and by showing that green initiatives can also boost the bottom line, is a great step forward on this front. With that said, victory shouldn’t be declared quite yet. The project requires oil prices to stay north of $50 per barrel to remain viable. Likewise, The University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology is monitoring the facilities to ensure they are in fact achieving all they claim to be. But for now, things are looking alright. So, with that in mind, let’s give a nice, tentative slow-clap for the folks over at NRG. They deserve it.

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