By Charles McConnell
Houston Chronicle, Jul. 29, 2022
Texas must remain a global leader in affordable and reliable energy, but this ambition must also include a commitment to a carbon neutral future and a reduction in the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change. There is a misguided narrative that increasing energy output while lowering emissions is in conflict. With the transformative technology of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), we have a solution and a pathway to achieving carbon neutrality. And this pathway can be enabled and accelerated by allowing the Texas Railroad Commission to assume the regulatory authority and stewardship for our state.
CCUS is a mature technology that has been practiced in our state over the past 50-plus years. It relies on capturing carbon dioxide emissions that would typically be released into the air and transporting them to a storage site to be injected underground for safe and permanent storage. Additionally, the captured carbon can be utilized in cement, chemical synthesis and other products.
Organizations such as the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have determined that the broad commercial deployment of CCUS is critical to meeting climate targets in a timely and cost-effective way. A National Petroleum Council study in 2020 that maps out how we can meet “the dual challenge” of energy production and climate change mitigation reinforces not only the need for CCUS but also the direct and active engagement of the energy industry to deploy the technology.
Texas has the energy expertise needed to scale this technology to an industrial level and has access to the proximal underground pore space, ideal for safely storing carbon dioxide, on both land and along the Gulf Coast. Our geologic storage capacity is one of the largest in the world.
There are market and commercial hurdles that stand in the way of advancing the development of CCUS, but a central hurdle is risk in the regulatory process. A long, drawn-out and inefficient regulatory process overseen at the federal level by the Environmental Protection Agency will slow down commercial development — and the capabilities at that federal level provide no greater advantage in achieving the desired permitting result. Policies should be driven at the state-level — and the Texas Railroad Commission has the capability to meet the task.
Established in 1891, the Railroad Commission is the oldest regulatory agency in the state. The Commission has transformed from its original purpose of railroad oversight to its current jurisdiction over the oil and natural gas industry — no small task given the immense influence Texas energy plays in the global market. As the commission’s responsibility has grown, so has the scrutiny.
Since 1977, every state agency undergoes a “sunset” review by the Legislature to assess its value and relevancy; the maximum an agency can be continued is 12 years. In this time, only five of the more than 130 active state agencies on the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission’s website have had as many sunset reviews as the Railroad Commission. Further, only one agency, the Texas Facilities Commission, has been reviewed with comparable frequency — the Railroad Commission was reviewed three times in a seven-year span (2010-2017).
It’s easy for critics to claim these reviews demonstrate the commission’s incompetence, yet the opposite is true. With each review, the commission addresses and solves issues and reduces waste, becoming stronger and more accountable. The Legislature’s confidence in the commission continues to grow. After renewing the commission for two years in 2011 and four years in 2013, the Legislature renewed the commission the full 12 years in 2017 with the support of nearly 90 percent of our elected leaders. The editorial board of this paper might deem the Railroad Commission untrustworthy, but the Texas Legislature — both Republicans and Democrats — certainly do not.
By granting the Texas Railroad Commission the ability to oversee the advancement of CCUS projects in our state, we can foster a collaborative process where private industry partners with the state to create a more sustainable energy future. Demonstrated excellence and performance will reinforce the commitment to CCUS leadership. North Dakota and Wyoming are already achieving this self-governing primacy, and Louisiana is actively in the process of seeking primacy, so Texas cannot afford to delay our efforts any longer. If Texas is to lead in CCUS, we must enable ourselves — and who among us would believe those other states are better equipped than ours to do so?
We must re-focus our attention on the critical efforts that will support broad CCUS deployment in our state and enable the innovative minds and capabilities of our energy industry to do what they do best. We all want a future that is energy secure and abundant and we desire environmental stewardship to ensure that the future is sustainable. It is not a zero-sum game, and no one knows energy better than Texas.
Charles McConnell is the executive director of the Center for Carbon Management in Energy at the University of Houston. He is a former assistant secretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy (2011-13) with a 40 year energy industry background.
Originally posted on The Houston Chronicle.