Like methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means that it absorbs heat and releases it gradually over time. But while CO2 absorbs less heat per molecule than other greenhouse gases, its abundance and longevity gives it outsize influence on the Earth’s energy budget, raising the planet’s average temperature.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, increases in CO2 are responsible for about two-thirds of the energy imbalance leading to global warming. In addition, carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean and has been making its surface waters more acidic since the start of the Industrial Revolution, negatively affecting marine life. This has made the mitigation of CO2 a focus for scientists and engineers.
Most CO2 emissions are the result of the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, oil) for energy and transportation. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 35% of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019 came from transportation, followed by electricity generation (31%), industry (16%), residential and commercial activities (11%) and other (8%).
Some carbon capture technology has been around since the 1920s, used for separating CO2 from the valuable methane extracted from natural gas reservoirs. However, the idea of capturing carbon dioxide to prevent it from being released into the atmosphere dates back to the early 1970s. Since 1972, the Terrell Natural Gas Processing Plant in Texas has supplied carbon dioxide via pipeline to an oilfield, where it is pumped into the ground in order to extract more oil. This is the oldest operating facility of its kind and captures 400,000 to 500,000 tons of CO2 every year.
As the threats of climate change have become more well known, the field of carbon capture, utilization and storage (or sequestration) has become the focus of both government policy and corporate investment.
“A lot of the push is coming from the industry side,” said John Bradford, vice president of global initiatives at Colorado School of Mines and a geophysicist. “Governments and corporations are all trying to set 2050 as a goal to try to hit net zero.”
Reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement, for example, would require CO2 sequestration to reach 2.8 gigatons per year, according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. This would require a 100-fold increase in facilities in operation around the world.
In the United States, the Biden administration’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan is “the largest investment proposal to commercialize carbon management technologies ever put forward by a single government,” according to the Clean Air Task Force. The organization says the plan could grow the nation’s carbon management capacity 13-fold by 2035 and create tens of thousands of jobs, while allowing traditionally high-emissions American industries—cement, steel, chemical and others—to remain environmentally sustainable and continue providing needed employment.
All this growth will require a well-trained workforce. Fittingly, the oil and gas industry and its workers are some of the best equipped to succeed in this field. The best training will come from institutions with a deep and storied history in resource extraction and the earth sciences. Colorado School of Mines, for example, has consistently ranked among the best universities in the world for its petroleum engineering and mining engineering programs. Related programs—geology, geophysics, civil engineering, underground construction and tunneling and more—are highly regarded as well.
Succeeding in CCUS and moving the discipline forward, however, will require new techniques and technology, as well as advances in policy. Mines’ fully online graduate certificate in carbon capture, utilization and storage, for example, harnesses the expertise of at least eight academic departments to help professionals strengthen and expand their knowledge.
In addition, the states themselves that extract the most fossil fuels have an advantage when it comes to launching CCUS projects. According to the think tank Third Way, states such as North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming are used to complying with the EPA’s rigorous Underground Injection Control Program, which regulates underground injection wells used for oil as well as CCUS.