Maris Densmore leads the investigation, analysis, and implementation of new strategic opportunities to harness the power of markets for high-impact emission reduction and removal actions in the energy and industrial sectors, including geologic storage of carbon, methane emission abatement, and long-term storage of carbon via other industrial processes. This is one of a continuing series of interviews on climate with Winrock experts.
What is an engineered solution for climate change?
An engineered solution is a technological intervention to address a specific problem or challenge associated with climate change. Most engineered solutions usually focus on reducing or preventing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or removing GHGs already in our atmosphere. One good example is the methodology that the American Carbon Registry (ACR, a non-profit enterprise of Winrock) is developing to support the plugging of “orphan” oil and gas wells. These wells are no longer in use, are not being maintained, and were never properly plugged by the companies that originally drilled and operated them, in part because of the expense involved. Even though they are inactive, these unplugged wells can still release huge volumes of GHGs, predominantly methane. Leaked methane is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) measured over a 100-year period.
I’m also working on expanding ACR’s Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) methodology to include more sources of CO2 and more places to sequester it. Plugging wells and CCS are two proven ways to prevent GHGs from entering the atmosphere ─ or even to remove it from the atmosphere, as is possible with some forms of CCS. The methodology will also address removal of legacy emissions (previously released CO2) that are already impacting our climate and which, unless dealt with, will make it harder for us to limit warming to the 1.5 degrees target in the Paris Agreement.
Can you tell us more about Carbon Capture and Storage?
Many industrial processes including power generation, cement and steel production, and nearly all other types of industrial manufacturing, as well as almost the entire waste handling sector, emit large quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere. One method for reducing GHG emissions in these difficult-to-decarbonize industries is through a suite of technologies known as CCS, or the capture, transport, and storage of CO2. The CCS process is a subset of something a little broader, known as CCUS, with the “U” representing “utilization” of the waste carbon. So ─ think about a coal-fired power plant emitting tons ─ literally ─ of CO2 every day. We can strip the CO2 out of the exhaust, compress the gas and transport it, usually via pipelines, to be injected and permanently stored into deep geologic reservoirs. In many cases, these rocks have stored oil, natural gas, and water for millions of years, and they are very well studied, so we know the CO2 will stay put. That stripped-out carbon can also be put to use ─ that’s the “U” or utilization part of CCUS ─ in an increasing variety of products, ranging from agricultural applications like pumping CO2-enriched air into greenhouses to increase production, to manufacturing, and for use in cleaner-burning fuels.
So the “U” part is interesting, but to get a large volume of CO2 removed from industrial exhaust and the atmosphere, the vast majority of captured CO2 will need be sequestered, or stored. And that’s why ACR is focused on geologic sequestration for the first round of our methodology. A process called Direct Air Capture (DACCS) can also remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere to address legacy emissions in the atmosphere – those GHGs produced from over 100 years of burning fossil fuels and emissions from other industries around the world. That technology is already out there and available, it just hasn’t been scaled for broad use across industries, mostly because it requires massive amounts of energy and is extremely expensive. Winrock pioneered the development of CCS quantification methodology in 2015 to enable and incentivize broader adoption and deployment of CCS technologies, but until recently, interest in applying that methodology has been limited. That’s changing rapidly, as people realize that we need an all-of-the-above strategy to combat climate change and begin to understand that engineered carbon capture and storage solutions are a large-scale, viable, essential tool.
What are some of the engineered solutions goals for ACR over the next year?
ACR currently has an active methodology for quantifying, reporting, monitoring, and verifying CCS projects. This methodology defines the process for project developers to generate carbon offsets through CCS under our voluntary carbon registry program and for the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). I mention CORSIA because ACR is one of very few registries worldwide that are approved to supply carbon offsets to airlines, a major source of GHGs. So now we are working to expand that methodology to include more project types and geologic reservoirs. Our longer-term goals include designing a methodology for CO2 utilization – there’s that “U” again – so that carbon stripped out of the air can be put to good use, recycled, without putting additional or new emissions into the atmosphere. That’s going to take some time, because this expanded methodology will need to go through ACR’s rigorous public and peer review processes before it’s ready for Prime Time. These technologies have been around for decades but now are being deployed for the good of the climate.
Technical, political, and environmental challenges still exist, but encouragingly, in the relatively short time since I joined Winrock, I’ve had the opportunity to represent the organization at numerous webinars, panels, and meetings (including COP26 in Glasgow!) with both project developers and climate scientists, many of whom are excited that our CCS methodology will be expanded and adapted to support deployment of large-scale CCUS projects. I’m also excited about the opportunity to develop a methodology for safe/responsible utilization of captured carbon in addition to capture and storage, though that’s a bit further down the road.
You moderated a panel on CCUS at COP26. What did you want your audience to take away, and what was the most interesting thing you learned?
This was my first COP and it was staggering and challenging and hopeful. My CCUS panel focused on challenges still facing CCUS deployment, even though there is general agreement that this suite of technologies is vital in the fight against climate change. Most people in the CCUS industry understand the technological, cost, and policy challenges. I chose to focus on the non-technical challenges, particularly environmental justice activism that objects to CCUS out of concern that project developers are conducting businesses as usual, often to the detriment of local communities. Without community engagement and buy-in, we will not be able to design, permit, and build CCUS projects locally, which we will need in order to have impact globally. This was also my biggest takeaway: We need to break out of our silos and start having these difficult, holistic conversations with stakeholders who have all different perspectives, and we need to do that early and often. While climate change is in many ways a scientific problem to be solved, we will not be able to truly make progress if we don’t include everyone in the conversation.
Do we have a real chance of beating climate change?
Absolutely! But it’s going to be really, really hard. Also, expensive, but it’s also easy to see how NOT beating climate changes is going to cost so much more. The magnitude of the change that will be needed by everyone on the planet can seem overwhelming. Our lives will look different in 10, 20, 50 years. We have a dwindling opportunity to choose what changes we will make ─ we are running out of time and choices, and our options for addressing the climate crisis will become increasingly drastic. Combating climate change will require nature-based solutions, technical solutions including engineered methods, and revolutionary cultural change.
How did you find your way to ACR and Winrock?
I am a geologist by training, and spent 20 years in the environmental and energy industries. My goal has always been to find practical solutions to complex and often politically fraught issues. I enjoy having difficult conversations with people who disagree with me! I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the slow pace of change in my former industry, and with the regulatory and policy hurdles that prevented deployment of my beloved CCS technologies. I could no longer participate in meetings that didn’t include flashing lights and sirens about the climate emergency, when all I had to do was look out the window to see my favorite planet on fire. (I live in California ─ it is too often on fire!) It was no longer enough just to keep my thermostat turned down and try to ride my bike more. Globally, we are moving past the question of “What do we need to do to address climate change?” ─ (spoiler alert: Stop emitting GHGs and remove a bunch of CO2 from of the atmosphere!) ─ and are moving towards the question of “How on Earth are we going to do that?” (Check out ACR’s list of methodologies for all the ways we are contributing). I have been working on CCUS for the past several years and came to ACR with the goal of contributing to large-scale deployment of a wider variety of CCUS and related projects, as well as other engineered climate change solutions. We need every tool in the toolbox ─ and some tools that haven’t yet been invented ─ in order to make a dent in climate change, and as a geologist with an odd combination of political, oil and gas, and advocacy experience, I’m delighted to be exactly where I am.