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ExxonMobil’s CO2 Sequestration Is Just A Tiny Fraction Of Its CO2 Emissions

ExxonMobil’s CCS claims are PR nonsense, designed in multiple ways to confuse and dissemble, allowing it the social license to keep on pumping oil and causing global warming.

ExxonMobil spins great PR hay out of its carbon straw. The company claims, reasonably enough, to be the global leader in getting rid of CO2. Like almost everything else in the carbon capture and sequestration space (CCS), the claims do not hold up to the slightest scrutiny.

It’s unusual to see an oil&gas company logo that hasn’t undergone rebranding in a vain attempt at seeming clean and green. That’s about the best I can say for ExxonMobil.

Its claim came to my attention recently, after the numerous assessments of the CCS space I’ve published over the past year or so. I was wondering where the specific number came from. I dug around quickly and found this on its CCS page:

With a working interest in approximately one-fifth of the world’s total carbon capture capacity, ExxonMobil is a leader in one of the most important next-generation low-greenhouse gas emissions technologies, capturing about 7 million tonnes per year of CO2. Since 1970, ExxonMobil has cumulatively captured more CO2 than any other company — accounting for more than 40 percent of cumulative CO2 captured.

Let’s tear this apart and see if it holds up.

First off, though, let’s look at 7 million tons per year of CO2. That sounds awesome, until you realize that the global problem is in the range of 3,200 billion excess tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. Yeah, regardless of how relatively well ExxonMobil does or doesn’t do compared to other CCS schemes, this is 6 orders of magnitude away from the scale of the problem.

Fail #1: 6 orders of magnitude too small

Next, let’s look at the biggest 19 CCS endeavors in the world per the Global CCS Institute, a petroleum industry PR think tank that spins this space for the oil, gas, and coal majors. I annotated its numbers for an earlier article to provide useful context.

Chart: Mike Barnard

There are a couple of interesting things here related to ExxonMobil’s claim. The first is that only 19 million tons of CO2 are being captured annually by the biggest CCS schemes in the world, so ExxonMobil is claiming 37% of that. Secondly, there are only 4 of 19 sites that aren’t actually enhanced oil recovery (EOR) sites.

What is that and why is it important? EOR with CO2 pumps CO2 underground in played out oil wells. That liquifies more of the sludge allowing more oil to be extracted. For every ton of CO2 pumped underground, a quarter ton comes back up. When that’s burned as the vast majority of oil is, it turns into about 0.8 tons of CO2, disregarding the upstream carbon-debt of capturing and transporting the CO2. That means that the 14 million tons used annually for EOR under claimed CCS programs are only sequestering about 2.8 million tons in the best case scenario.

As I pointed out in an assessment of ‘best’ CCS example in the world, the Norwegian non-EOR Sleipner CCS facility, the natural gas the CO2 is extracted from turns into 25 times the CO2 sequestered.

So is there merit to ExxonMobil’s claim? Is it behind 7 million of the 19 million at all, regardless of EOR?

Well, the company can make that claim, yes. It owns the Shute Creek facility in Labarge, Wyoming, which does have a claimed 7 million ton per year capacity and has been in operation since 1986.

But it is an EOR facility. That’s only 1.4 million tons at most of CO2 actually going away annually.

Fail #2: pumping oil with the CO2

Hmmm, how does that compare to its CO2 emissions? Well, per Statista, it is running 6.1 million barrels of oil daily. That’s about 2,200 million barrels annually. Each barrel of oil turns into about 0.433 tons of CO2. That’s right, a single barrel turns into over 40% of a ton of CO2.

That means that ExxonMobil pumps sufficient oil annually to create just under a billion tons of CO2 annually by itself. And it is actually sequestering about a thousandth of that amount of CO2 after you look at EOR.

Fail #3: 1000 times less captured than emitted

So what does this all net out to? Yes, there’s the a grain of truth in what ExxonMobil says. It is pretty much the biggest carbon sequestration organization in the world, the way that those organizations count things, which is pretty lame.

But the company excludes any reference to the scale of the problem that it specifically is creating. And it excludes any reference to the larger scale of the problem, of which it is a small part. And it doesn’t provide context for the CO2 scale compared to the scale of the emissions that it is responsible for.

ExxonMobil’s CCS claims are PR nonsense, designed in multiple ways to confuse and dissemble, allowing it the social license to keep on pumping oil and causing global warming. Unsurprisingly.

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Written By

Mike is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc and co-founder of two current startups. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. He is editor of The Future is Electric and designing for health. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, and his work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. He's available for consulting engagements, speaking engagements and Board positions.


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