Embracing the exploration spirit so often embodied in the annual Halbouty Lecture, Cindy Yeilding, retired senior vice president of BP America, rallied and encouraged her audience at the August 2022 IMAGE conference to repurpose their geoscience knowledge and skillsets for the energy transition.
“An explorer’s role is to create value where others don’t see the opportunities, or where others don’t think it’s possible,” she said.
As the world searches for viable ways to decarbonize, it will not be uncommon to hear people say, “That technology will never work at scale, or it might work but it’s never going to make any money,” Yeilding said. “Those are all parts of the energy transition conversation, which tells us that using our exploration mindset is right for new exploration opportunities.”
A native Texan, Yeilding noted that last year, Texas was the No. 1 state for producing energy from wind and No. 2 for solar. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy sources account for 12 percent of total energy consumption and 20 percent of energy generation in the United States.
“For many of us in the room, we can all remember when these were silly ideas that were never going to take off,” she said, “and they are now growing at an extremely rapid pace.”
In a speech entitled, “Exploring Our Future: New Opportunities for Geoscientists in a Low Carbon World,” Yeilding said efforts are now centered around decarbonizing the global energy system, mitigating the impact of greenhouse gases, reducing emissions, developing low-carbon energy resources and increasing energy efficiency – all the while bringing an end to energy poverty and maintaining or achieving energy security.
“By all accounts, the energy transition will take decades, and a common goal for many countries and companies is carbon neutrality by or before 2050,” she said. “This dual challenge of providing more energy while decarbonizing the system is one of the great – if not the greatest – societal challenges of this century.”
For this to happen, the economics need to work, solid business models must be developed, revenue will be needed for shareholders and stakeholders, governments will need tax revenue, and people will need skills, expertise and jobs.
“There are a lot of priorities that we have to align and keep from conflicting with each other. These new businesses will be enabled by strong policies, good regulatory support, strong business models and continued investment in both technology and people’s skill development,” Yeilding said. “There are many polarized views and opinions in this conversion, but we are not going to be successful in this transition – in this quest, if you will – without this unprecedented collaboration of many, many players.”
And, geoscientists will be primary players as energy goals evolve, Yeilding said.
Referring to technology that has been proven but not yet scaled up, Yeilding enumerated multiple ideas for how geoscientists can pivot their skillsets and expertise into the decarbonization sector.
Carbon capture, utilization and storage uses proven technology and has policy support in many places, including North America and Europe, and Yeilding believes that the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will catalyze further investment in the United States.
“There have been a lot of projects that have been firming up since 2020 when 45Q (a federal tax credit for carbon sequestration) was clarified, and now that some of the tax incentives have been enhanced, you’re going to see a significant increase in projects,” she said. “And hopefully a lot of those will actually succeed.”
CCUS is particularly suited for geoscientists because of its storage aspects. Integrated basin reservoir modeling, stratigraphy, reservoir prediction and characterization, and structural geomechanics will be needed when selecting safe carbon storage sites.
“They translate to understanding the key elements of the earth system,” Yeilding said.
Furthermore, 3-D and 4-D seismic and modeling will be critical through the entire lifecycle of CCUS projects in addition to risk characterization and modeling uncertainty – just like they are in hydrocarbon evaluation, she added.
The storage of carbon in saline reservoirs will likely not have global, geological constraints.
“The United States is blessed with vast geologic resources to store CO₂, but other countries like China, Canada and Australia – countries with extensive sedimentary basins, onshore and offshore – offer significant opportunities for CCUS as well,” Yeilding said.
As it stands, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the United States has the geologic formations to store approximately 3,000 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide. (The United States produces about 5.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year.)
Yeilding also believes that offshore carbon storage could become viable in the United States, especially in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Margin.
“A few years ago we might have laughed at the idea of offshore CCUS, but there is a lot of potential there,” she said, citing a 40,000-acre offshore Texas Gulf of Mexico lease secured by Talos Energy, Inc. in 2021 for carbon storage in partnership with Carbonvert, Inc. (The tract is adjacent to several carbon emitting refineries and petrochemical plants.) Chevron’s New Energies division became a partner in the project in May, 2022.
Enhanced oil recovery is another technology that can be used to effectively store CO₂, Yeilding said. Only about 20 or 30 percent of petroleum is typically recovered during primary production. Operators may or may not flood a reservoir with water to produce an additional amount of oil through secondary recovery. Yet, by this point, there is often plus or minus 50 percent of the oil still remaining in the reservoir, Yeilding said.
Under the right reservoir and fluid conditions, a process known as CO₂ EOR might be employed as a tertiary recovery method. EOR involves injecting CO₂ into a hydrocarbon bearing reservoir. The CO₂ forces previously unproduced oil out of the pore space while trapping the injected CO₂. Any CO₂ produced with the oil is recycled and reinjected into the reservoir, so ultimately it’s a closed system, and up to 99 percent of the CO₂ is permanently stored in the subsurface, Yeilding said.
“This is proven technology – it’s been utilized for decades – and supportive policies such as 45Q create an even more viable business model. Although traditionally CO₂ EOR has used carbon dioxide from natural sources, there’s been a switch and we are adding more and more industrial-sourced carbon into the EOR mix,” she said.
“Under the right circumstances, an EOR field can even produce net-negative-carbon oil,” Yeilding said, referring to two field examples produced by Denbury, Inc., of which Yeilding is a member of the board of directors. “They store more CO₂ during the EOR of flooding than the scope one, scope two and scope three emissions of the barrels that they are producing,” she said. “I’m not saying this is going to work everywhere … but to me, this net-carbon-negative oil could be a differential product and something that we all need to explore.”
Referring to EOR in the offshore, Yeilding said it could be a stepping stone for offshore CO₂ storage. “We have a regulatory environment that supports this. These are Class II wells, so the permitting process is straightforward and well understood. We have existing ISO-verification models, and 45Q will enable some projects that might not have been viable in the past. We’re going to use the oil that’s already been found, and I think that’s appealing to many stakeholders. You’ve already got much of the infrastructure in place,” she said. “If we start with EOR, we could build expertise in carbon capture and storage skills and build out the infrastructure, drive technology costs down and increase innovation and continue to build our monitoring capabilities and potentially create this net-negative oil.”
Other CCUS Applications
Shifting the topic to mineralization, Yeilding said geoscientists will be needed in this aspect of the energy transition as well. She referred specifically to exposing ultramafic rocks to CO₂ to form travertine while simultaneously trapping the CO₂.
“There are some cool ideas about injecting CO₂ into offshore ultramafic rocks around the world and also creating this at the surface with mining talus or debris. To succeed, this needs a lot of geological expertise and input,” she said.
Yeilding said opportunties also exist in using agricultural methods to enhance carbon sequestration capacity of soil on farms and grasslands.
“The NPC (National Petroleum Council) model projects that CCUS could create about 230,000 annual jobs in the United States and create an investment of over $680 billion over the next 25 years,” she said. “Think about what that could mean at the global scale.”
Critical Minerals, Geothermal, Other Geoscience Needs
Geoscientists will also will be needed in the exploration and mining of critical minerals, as the demand for these minerals could grow as much as fivefold by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.
“Geoscientists will be imperative to finding and extracting these minerals, and skills such as mineral exploration, geochemistry, mapping, remote sensing and mining operations will be critical to their safe development,” she said. “As with any extraction activity, a risk assessment and a full life-cycle analysis will be required to make sure these activities do no harm and the full environmental impacts are understood before proceeding.”
Harnessing low-pressure geothermal energy will also require geoscientists. Hydro-geologic, drilling and operations expertise are going to be fundamental to harnessing geothermal energy, Yeilding said.
In terms of business opportunities, in addition to the more traditional high-temperature geothermal energy sources, research is now going into using existing oil and gas wells to produce geothermal energy and harnessing regional, lower-temperature geothermal energy to provide power for cities and regions, she added.
Furthermore, there is a huge opportunity to reduce CO₂ through the decarbonization of cement and steel – in both the processes and the products. Together, these two materials account for 12 to 15 percent of the annual global carbon dioxide emissions, Yeilding said. And, there is a significant amount of effort going into eliminating these emissions.
“Geoscience skills can be utilized in the development of the processes, products and the manufacturing of these materials. As many of you know, cement and concrete can now be manufactured to create a carbon-negative material, which can be used in buildings and infrastructure,” she said. “Not only can we eliminate or reduce significantly the emissions from the process of making steel, cement and concrete, we can then sequester carbon in building materials to potentially make a low-carbon or a net zero building or roadway. There is a lot of potential value and opportunity in these materials.”
Geoscientists are inherently problem-solvers, Yeilding said, and they are ideal for addressing and solving one of the planet’s biggest challenges.
“I’d encourage us all to use Mr. Halbouty’s approach. Let’s challenge the dogma that we hear around us, let’s create new opportunities. And if we fail – and we will fail a lot in these areas – let’s learn from the failure, get up, regroup and start again. I encourage each of you to explore the opportunities in the energy transition,” she said.