Balancing natural resource extraction with environmental concerns often results in for-profit businesses and government regulators struggling to find a middle ground in mitigating environmental damage while still granting companies enough latitude to maintain financially feasible operations. In the case of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology paired with enhanced oil recovery (EOR), however, the rare promise of a win-win scenario may exist for all parties.

Two Birds With One Stone

By capturing and sequestering harmful carbon dioxide (CO ) emissions produced by large industrial operations, such as electricity generation, chemical production and manufacturing, this carbon can then be stored underground rather than being released into the atmosphere. Taking this a step further, these gases can be pumped into existing oil wells as part of EOR practices designed to push up previously unrecoverable oil to where it can be reached, enabling higher production levels to be sustained for longer periods of time.

“CCS is the magic bullet for climate change abatement in the region considering the continued expansion in utilities, particularly energy and water desalination, and industry, including for example the downstream component of the hydrocarbon sector,” Khalid M Abuleif, sustainability advisor to the minister and chief negotiator for climate agreements the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, told OBG. “If it is not commercially viable within the next 20 years, it will be unfortunate and I hope there is a breakthrough in these areas with regard to commercial viability,” he also added.

With roughly 40% of total national CO emissions produced from power generation and desalination operations (the vast majority of which are oil-fired units), according to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), there is significant potential for widespread implementation of CCS and CCS-EOR in the country.

Current Trends

The importance of implementing carbon reduction measures is particularly significant for Saudi given the country’s comparatively high levels of emissions per capita, which topped 16.25m tonnes of CO per person in 2010, according to the IEA’s “CO Emissions from Fuel Combustion Report 2012”. This ranked the Kingdom among the world leaders in emissions just behind the US (17.31 tonnes per capita), Australia (17.00) Qatar (36.90), the UAE (20.50), Kuwait (31.93) and Bahrain (18.71). These emissions are also rapidly increasing, with levels per capita rising 64.8% from 2009 to 2010 compared to an overall global growth rate of 11.4%, although still behind the 72.4% rate set by the Middle East region.

While the theory behind CCS is sound, widespread commercial application of the technology has not yet been realised, with current use so far limited to a smattering of demonstration projects spread across the globe. In Saudi, activities have so far been focussed on basic technical and policy research with a number of institutions, including the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Saudi Aramco, King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.

The country’s first CCS-EOR pilot programme is being developed by Saudi Aramco in the Uthmaniya area of the Ghawar field – the largest single oilfield in the world. Expected to enter service at the end of 2013, the project will use 40m cu feet of CO per day, to be captured and processed at the Hawiyah Natural Gas Liquids Recovery Plant and transported to the field via an 80-km pipeline. The undertaking includes the employment of four injection wells, four production wells and one observation well. Given the Kingdom still possesses ample reserves that do not yet necessitate the use of more expensive EOR techniques, the primary purpose of this demonstration project is to assess the applicability of sequestering CO in a mature zone within an oil reservoir. While these early studies should provide insight into technical feasibility, the high capital costs and uncertainty to employing this evolving technology remains a barrier to full-scale implementation.