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ExxonMobil unveils vision for $100-bil Texas carbon capture hub

28 April 2021

ExxonMobil recently unveiled a $100-billion vision for a carbon capture and storage (CCS) hub south of the oil major's Texas headquarters.

The hub plan, which is being called the CCS Innovation Zone, is expected to be a public-private partnership that will attract participation and funding from companies and government entities. The hub would be sited outside Houston, the locus for many oil, natural gas, and other energy-related companies and industries.

"The time is right for a large-scale collaboration in the United States between government at every level, private industry, academia, and local communities," Joe Blommaert, president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, said in a statement on 19 April. "And we think Houston is the perfect place for such a concept."

The CCS project could capture "hundreds of millions of tons" of CO2 that result from human production and use of fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal. The hub could draw up to 50 million mt of CO2 from the air by 2030, and 100 million mt by 2040. The latter figure would be a sevenfold increase from total US carbon capture of 13 million mt in 2019, the company said, citing data from the Global CCS Institute.

The hub, or central location for a variety of carbon-capturing industrial processes, would be concentrated in, and under, the Houston Ship Channel, the focal point for a slew of oil and gas-related activities on the US Gulf Coast. Carbon would be drawn from nearby emissions sources, like refineries and processing plants, and injected into the ground thousands of feet undersea.

ExxonMobil identified these traits -- the presence of heavy industry, and the subsoil characteristics underneath the Houston Ship Channel -- as the reasons in favor of a CCS hub near Houston. The captured CO2 would be packed "safely, securely, and permanently" underground, the company said.

The company likewise underscored that the CCS hub would address carbon-cutting in precisely the sectors where reductions are hardest, like heavy industry and manufacturing.

The CCS project "represents the intersection of oil and gas sector expertise on transport and storage with the needs of hard-to-abate industries," said Susan Farrell, vice president in the climate and sustainability practice at IHS Markit.

"That said, government incentives and funding will be needed for the emitters to install capture systems at their facilities" to make the hub vision work, Farrell added.

ExxonMobil noted that, according to US Department of Energy data, the geological properties along the US Gulf Coast could allow for storage of as much as 500 billion mt of CO2—or more than 130 years' worth of total US carbon emissions, measuring from the country's tally in 2018.

The hub's partnership model should cultivate synergies and economic viability, said Paola Perez Pena, a principal analyst in the IHS Markit power and energy group.

"The concept of shared infrastructure and storage not only reduces the risks associated with the project, but also reduces the costs," she said. Pena agreed that government support will be needed, noting that many early-stage CCS hubs in Europe receive between 30% and 50% of their funding from public sources.

"The big question here will be if the government will provide the support or incentives required for this project to move forward," Pena said.

The CCS project announcement comes as the US makes strides toward aggressive climate policies. President Joe Biden, ahead of the US-hosted Leaders Summit on Climate on 22-23 April, committed to halving US carbon emissions by 2030 compared with a 2005 baseline.

Biden has pledged the US will achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with a flurry of similar low- or zero-carbon promises from other heavily industrialized countries around the world.

The US president used the summit to update the US Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), a plan required from each country that is a participant in the Paris Agreement. Biden returned the US to the agreement after former President Donald Trump pulled it out in 2017.

The ExxonMobil announcement appears to respond to other Biden guidelines that were emphasized during the climate summit, including the reduction of carbon emitted in industrial processes, infrastructure investment, US-located manufacturing jobs, plus a "whole-of-government" approach that coordinates political and regulatory procedures on local, state, and US federal levels to notch climate-positive results.

Blommaert also urged the kind of public-sector support needed to make the Houston CCS hub a reality—and a tool in achieving the US' Paris targets.

"CCS should be a key part of the US strategy for meeting its Paris goals," he said. In addition, he said the government "should establish a durable regulatory and legal environment, and implement policies to enable CCS to receive direct investment and incentives" like other technologies do.

Blommaert called on US leaders to establish a carbon price, a measure that ExxonMobil has advocated for years, which would further promote progress in the transition to lower carbon industries.

CCS also figures in the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion-plus package that the White House released in March to restore economic stability after the COVID-19 pandemic and to address long-standing calls to improve infrastructure nationwide.

ExxonMobil said the CCS hub could help the US achieve its commitments to reduce GHGs under the Paris accord. The global pact aims to keep worldwide temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century, relative to pre-industrial temperature levels.

Original reporting by William Fleeson.

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