- Exxon's carbon capture and sequestration deal with CF Industries and Enlink Midstream in Louisiana could be significant for the future of Big Oil's low-carbon business.
- One key: tax incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August.
- Environmental critics say the new law just subsidizes an expensive technology, but Exxon says deal will be the first of many from a large backlog that is "starting to move quickly" and that the Biden climate plan has helped to catalyze.
Could it be that Big Oil's next big thing got a big assist from Joe Biden?
Maybe, if carbon capture and storage is indeed as big a deal as ExxonMobil's first-of-its-kind deal to extract, transport and store carbon from other companies' factories implies.
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The deal, announced last month, calls for ExxonMobil to capture carbon emitted by CF Industries' ammonia factory in Donaldsonville, La., and transport it to underground storage using pipelines owned by Enlink Midstream. Set to start up in 2025, the deal is meant to herald a new stage in dealing with carbon produced by manufacturers, and is the latest step in ExxonMobil's often-tense dialogue with investors who want oil companies to slash emissions.
The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August, may determine whether deals like Exxon's become a trend. The law expands tax credits for capturing carbon from industrial uses in a bid to offset the high up-front costs of plans to capture carbon from places like CF's plant, as other tax credits in the law lower costs of renewable power and electric cars.
The Inflation Reduction Act and Big Oil
The law may help oil companies like ExxonMobil build profitable businesses to replace some of the revenue and profit they'll lose as EVs proliferate. Though the company isn't sharing financial projections, it has committed to investing $15 billion in CCS by 2027 and ExxonMobil Low-Carbon Solutions president Dan Ammann says it may invest more.
"We see a big business opportunity here," Ammann told CNBC's David Faber. "We're seeing interest from companies across a whole range of industries, a whole range of sectors, a whole range of geographies."
The deal calls for ExxonMobil to capture and remove 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide yearly from CF's factory, equivalent to replacing 700,000 gasoline-powered vehicles with electric versions.
Each company involved is pursuing its own version of the low-carbon industrial economy. CF wants to produce more carbon-free blue ammonia, a process that often involves extracting ammonia's components from carbon-laden fossil fuels. Enlink hopes to become a kind of railroad for captured CO2 emissions, calling itself the would-be "CO2 transportation provider of choice" for an industrial corridor laden with refineries and chemical plants.
Exxon itself wants to develop carbon capture as a new business, Amman said, pointing to a "very big backlog of similar projects," part of the company's pledge to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as Exxon itself emits by 2050.
"We want oil companies to be active participants in carbon reduction," said Julio Friedmann, a deputy assistant energy secretary under President Obama and chief scientist at Carbon Direct in New York. "It's my expectation that this can become a flagship project."
The key to the sudden flurry of activity is the Inflation Reduction Act.
"It's a really good example of the intersection of good policy coming together with business and the innovation that can happen on the business side to tackle the big problem of emissions and the big problem of climate change," Ammann said. "The interest we are seeing, the backlog, are all confirming this is starting to move and starting to move quickly."
The law increased an existing tax credit for carbon capture to $85 a ton from $45, Goldman said, which will save the Exxon/CF/Enlink project as much as $80 million a year. Credits for captured carbon used underground to enhance production of more fossil fuels are lower, at $60 per ton.
"Carbon capture is a big boys' game," said Peter McNally, global sector lead for industrial, materials and energy research at consulting firm Third Bridge. "These are billion-dollar projects. It's big companies capturing large amounts of carbon. And big oil and gas companies are where the expertise is."
Goldman Sachs, and environmentalists, are skeptical
A Goldman Sachs team led by analyst Brian Singer called the law "transformative" for climate reduction technologies including battery storage and clean hydrogen. But its analysis is less bullish when it comes to the impact on carbon capture projects like Exxon's, with Singer expecting more modest gains as the law accelerates development in longer-term projects. To speed up investment more, companies must build CCS systems at greater scale and invent more efficient carbon-extraction chemistry, the Goldman team said.
Industrial uses are the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA. That's narrowly behind both electricity production and transportation. Emissions reduction in industrial uses is considered more expensive and difficult than in either power generation or car and truck transport. Industry is the focus for CCS because utilities and vehicle makers are looking first to other technologies to cut emissions.
Almost 20 percent of U.S. electricity last year came from renewable sources that replace coal and natural gas and another 19 percent came from carbon-free nuclear power, according to government data. Renewables' share is rising rapidly in 2022, according to interim Energy Department reports, and the IRA also expands tax credits for wind and solar power. Most airlines plan to reduce their carbon footprint by switching to biofuels over the next decade.
More oil and chemical companies seem likely to get on the carbon capture bandwagon first. In May, British oil giant BP and petrochemical maker Linde announced a plan to capture 15 million tons of carbon annually at Linde's plants in Greater Houston. Linde wants to expand its sales of low-carbon hydrogen, which is usually made by mixing natural gas with steam and a chemical catalyst. In March, Oxy announced a deal with a unit of timber producer Weyerhauser. Oxy won the rights to store carbon underneath 30,000 acres of Weyerhauser's forest land, even as it continues to grow trees on the surface, with both companies prepared to expand to other sites over time.
Still, environmentalists remain skeptical of CCS.
Tax credits may cut the cost of CCS to companies, but taxpayers still foot the bill for what remains a "boondoggle," said Carroll Muffett, CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington. The biggest part of industrial emissions comes from the electricity that factories use, and factory owners should reduce that part of their carbon footprint with renewable power as a top priority, he said.
"It makes no economic sense at the highest levels, and the IRA doesn't change that,'' Muffett said. "It just changes who takes the risk."
Friedman countered by saying economies of scale and technical innovations will trim costs, and that CCS can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 10 percent over time.
"It's a rather robust number," Friedmann said. "And it's about things you can't easily address any other way."