The University of Houston has developed a blueprint to make the fourth-largest city in the US a hub for carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) as the country's oil capital deepens its exposure to the energy transition.

The plan not only describes a path to have the Greater Houston area reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but also to make the region a profitable CCUS hub.

The price tag would be significant, reaching as much as $10 billion over the 30-year period, but the authors believe the sum would be worth it for the region’s continued economic success.

“The cost of not developing CCUS in Houston is an existential threat to these industries and to global energy leadership,” they said in the report.


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Houston advantages

Charles McConnell, a former assistant secretary of energy during the administration of former US Democratic president Barack Obama and the energy center officer of the university’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, said the Houston area has a number of advantages when it comes to being a potential CCUS hub.

“Houston is uniquely positioned globally as a place where this should flourish and be able to advance commercially faster than anywhere else in the world and the most effectively,” he said.

McConnell noted the region already has a number of industries that could support CCUS activities in a close area, pipeline systems that could be put to use and good geology for carbon dioxide storage.

The Houston area, he said, could have as much as 100 years-worth of underground carbon storage.

“It's suitable geology; it's permeable, it's porous. But it's also safe and permanent, in terms of the permanency of the formations, so that when the (carbon dioxide) is injected into it, it will be safely and permanently stored,” McConnell explained.

“And we can have confidence that that will occur in this geology, both on and off shore, here in the Gulf Coast.”

Benefit for oil and gas players

The Greater Houston area is home to numerous refineries and petrochemical plants that have pipelines feeding oil and gas from across the country. Instead of actively opposing the idea of the energy transition, McConnell believes they can be participants and benefit financially.

“Many of the companies (in the oil and gas segment) are under investor and shareholder pressure to decarbonise and produce projects that have a lower carbon footprint,” he said.

“So, the carbon intensity of the way they operate, the products they produce, all of these things, I believe, going forward, are part of what all of these companies believe will be important value proposition for themselves, considering the existential threat that they currently are feeling right now because they're either going to get with it, or they're going to end up extinct.”

'We’re going to need gas'

The university's plan does not call for the elimination of fossil fuels — especially when it comes to natural gas. Instead, it believes the correct approach would be to eliminate their carbon emissions, as alternative sources of energy are currently incapable of handling the entire power demands of Texas and beyond.

Natural gas — with its lower carbon footprint than oil or coal — will be needed to handle the demands that wind and solar power cannot.

“Wind and solar contributes less than 6% of the all energy in the world,” McDonnell said.

“There’s not enough (wind turbines), and there aren’t enough batteries that are going to be able to make this happen anytime soon. So we’re going to need gas. If we decarbonise gas-fired power generation, we will also have carbon-free electricity … It will be reliable, 24/7 power.”

McConnell said the use of CCUS is a “methodical pathway” that is more technologically viable and takes advantage of existing geology and infrastructure.

Steady development of CCUS in Houston over the next three decades may not be cheap, but would allow the region to remain an energy powerhouse throughout the transition.

“CCUS has now found the light of day, in terms of people’s recognition,” McConnell said. "It’s not an option; it’s a must-have.”