Storing staggering amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the ground could be the oil industry’s ultimate moonshot.

The oil industry is the logical choice for the job because it has both the means and motivation to do it.

It has long experience injecting CO2 into formations to increase production as well as many of the related skills, from subsurface evaluation to megaproject management.

And the industry needs to find a safe, socially acceptable, financially possible way to pull carbon out of the world’s exhaust pipes and store it, if it wishes to keep selling fuels that generate the CO2 that contributes to climate change.

Still, it is kind of a crazy thing to try to do. No one would want to launch a business with a plan to inject CO2 deep into unfamiliar formations where they will be responsible for making sure it will remain there forever; and to make matters worse, it is not clear how the company creating the site will get paid, beyond the limited government programs available now to subsidize carbon capture or build storage test sites.

Major players in the oil industry are moving in that direction because they are feeling the intense pressure to remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere as is emitted from the fuels they sell.

“Carbon management is something you are going to have to do—markets and the public will mandate it,” said Michael Godec, vice president for Advanced Resources International (ARI), a data and consulting firm which has done lots of work on carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). For engineers, it is worth learning about because it presents interesting problems that could create jobs in an industry potentially on the large scale of the oil business.

Like the technical people with varied skills hired to put a man on the moon, petroleum engineers have developed skills applicable to CCUS over the course of their own work. In this case, their work with producing reservoirs will provide a basis to figure out how things work when the flows of carbon are reversed and injected into little-known underground formations.

Old fields can handle only a small fraction of what will need to be stored. Storing enough carbon to affect the world’s atmosphere will require venturing into new spaces—particularly deep, saline aquifers. It is known that these spaces appear big enough to accommodate billions of tons of carbon; beyond that, the information is skimpy.

This challenge is one that would best be approached slowly and carefully. But getting anywhere near the International Energy Agency’s goal of storing six gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year by 2050 will require rapid movement. (Note: 1 Gt is equivalent to 1 billion tons.)

The volume of space needed to store that volume of CO2 is roughly equal to 150% of the space evacuated each year by oil production, said Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics at Stanford University, during a speech at the recent CO2 Conference in Midland, Texas.

Even a planned megaproject such as ExxonMobil’s carbon disposal site in the Gulf of Mexico, which is expected to cost $100 billion, looks like a down payment on the total cost.

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