COP21, cognitive dissonance and intra-vehicular carbon capture

Editor Neil McNaughton surveys the world energy scene and finds ‘cogdiss' everywhere. From gas guzzling greens to ‘climate conscious’ big oil. Stumbling on a potential solution to the carbon problem that would permit business as usual for oils, he finds someone else got there first!

Listen to the great and good go on about global warming and then look down the road. Cognitive dissonance (cogdiss) is everywhere!

A couple of years ago, when France was at the height of anti-shale frenzy, a couple of meetings were held in remote rural communities which effectively shut the door on shale for the foreseeable future. But how did the greens-cum-nimbies travel to these gatherings? Mostly in diesel powered motor vehicles, many of the SUV/off-road kind. With a special mention to the vehicle ‘fétiche’ of the alter mondialists, the Lada Niva whose gas guzzling propensity rivals the Humvee. Similar cogdiss will be on display as folks in their tinted-windowed limos and private jets congregate at COP21, the UN climate change conference, to be held down the road from us in what has recently been a swelteringly hot Paris.

At the EAGE last month, we heard how population growth and the need for more cars will ultimately save the oil and gas industry. This may be true but it is not much of a position in the context of COP21. Contrary views were expressed by the IEA and others who see the oil industry as a twilight concern which, although it will be ‘needed’ out to 2040, will not be growing. We also heard that the EAGE was getting ‘sustainable,’ but I’ll pass on that silliness.

Since then a group of EU oils wrote a ‘Dear Excellencies’ letter to the UN panel on climate advocating a carbon tax. ExxonMobil and Chevron quickly distanced themselves from this, stating that ‘carbon taxing without tax breaks will raise the cost of energy’ duh! Behind the EU oils’ self-flagellating entreaty hid a baser motive. The tax on carbon should be set so that it favors natural gas over ‘high carbon options’ i.e. coal. I think that the industry is on a slippery slope in dissing coal. After all, our main moneymaker, oil, is somewhere in between gas and coal in ‘badness.’ All of us purveyors of fossil fuel and biomass (a non-fossil, but carbon-rich fuel that is ‘green’ just because it’s green!) are in this together.

It is an uncomfortable fact that if policymakers and others are convinced that putting CO2 into the atmosphere is causing irreparable damage, then the answer is indeed a carbon tax. This would attack the problem at its root and all other efforts (fuel economy, building insulation, CO2 mitigation) would follow. This will undoubtedly be the direction taken by COP21, along with bags of cogdiss.

Not all are convinced by the need for regulation. David Porter, the new chairman of the Texas railroad commission railed against Washington’s recent ‘attack’ on Texas’ regulatory framework, the threat from the EPA and from Obama’s ‘war’ on fossil fuels. Ségolène Royale, France’s minister inter alia of the environment likewise argues against ‘punitive ecology.’

But oil is facing more adversity from the short sellers with a push, of uncertain effect, to encourage investors to divest oil company shares. Oils are also pressed to include future carbon liabilities in their accounts.

You would think that in view of the time that global warming has been an issue we would already have taken great strides towards using less carbon, in all its manifestations. But although the world has been greatly exercised about CO2, not much has is being done about it. Look around. What cars do people buy these days? Lower gas prices in the US are encouraging folks to trade up to gas guzzling SUVs. In the EU, popular cars include BMWs and Audis. Low interest rates and cash-poor consumers lead folks to buy on the never never, following the advice of their friendly car salesperson to go for the model with the extra horsepower.

All of which leads to the curious situation whereby Europeans and Americans, by choice, drive around in oversized over powered vehicles. By choice! Others eschew hydrocarbons and opt for electric vehicles which add low mileage between recharging stops to equation. Again by choice! Hold that thought…

To stay alive, the oil industry needs a cogdiss refresh. Instead of proudly displaying Formula 1 racing cars (Shell at the SPE) or MotoGP superbikes (Repsol at EAGE), industry needs to look more seriously at carbon capture and sequestration. So far the largely underfunded and unsuccessful efforts at CCS have focused on power stations that produce lots of CO2 on the spot. But what I am talking about is sequestration of vehicular CO2. This is a much harder problem that has been exhaustively analyzed by researchers at the University of Michigan who point out a downside to in-vehicle carbon capture. As fuel burns, it grabs bags of oxygen from the atmosphere. A kilo of gasoline produces around three kilos of CO2. This needs compressing, using more power.

More weight? More power? Where did we just hear that? Of course this is exactly what the status hungry consumer of today wants. But this time, the power is being put to an ‘eco-friendly’ use, rather than just rushing the red lights on Westheimer.

There’s another problem though, offloading all the captured CO2. This would involve two extra stops per refuel. But there again, we are only asking folks to align their stops with what a Tesla owner is already doing.

All this may sound rather improbable. But credits and tax rebates would encourage such behavior. Half price gas for every kg of CO2 offloaded? There will no doubt be an app for that.

We asked U Michigan’s Michael Sivak for an update on the program and he pointed us to Saudi Aramco’s Esam Hamad who in turn, produced a swath of papers and Aramco patents on intra-vehicular capture. There seems to have been a hiatus in the research since 2012. But if and when the C tax comes, Aramco will be in the driving seat!

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