March 12th, 2010
05:16 PM ET

Is carbon dioxide a commodity?

 Michael Williams, an energy commissioner in Texas, took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference.  He touted Texas-style solutions as an example of what the right can offer. "CO2 is a commodity," he said. "It's not a waste; it's not a pollutant. Al Gore may be afraid of it but I've got oilmen in Texas who pay $20 a ton for it." Williams said Texas produces 200,000 barrels of oil every day with the help of CO2.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, carbon dioxide, CO2, is a greenhouse gas - a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere through human activities like burning fossil fuels, along with other processes, such as animal respiration. According to the Department of Energy, one-third of carbon emissions in the United States come from power plants and other large emitters.

Given the heat surrounding the climate change debate, CNN Fact Check Desk wondered: Do Williams' comments highlight a potential two-for-one energy solution? Can we use carbon dioxide emissions to collect more oil, turning trash into treasure?

Fact Check: Is carbon dioxide, which would otherwise be considered a waste product, a commodity in Texas?

- Pumping oil out of the ground using naturally occurring pressure is the primary method of collecting oil; pumping oil with the help of water or gas is the secondary method. Enhanced oil recovery with CO2, considered a tertiary method, has been used for about 40 years, according to the Department of Energy.

- With enhanced oil recovery, carbon dioxide is pumped into a well and mixes with the oil. The change in pressure forces the mixture to the surface. The oil and CO2 are separated and the CO2 is cycled back through. This process can last many years, with the carbon dioxide cycling through until the oil is exhausted. The Energy Department in 2008 estimated that 39 billion to 48 billion barrels of oil can be recovered at reasonable cost through this method.

- Tracy Evans, president and COO of Denbury Resources, a Texas-based oil and natural gas company, said about 100 million barrels of oil could be produced using the amount of carbon dioxide a coal power plant would emit over 40 years.

- According to 2008 Department of Energy figures, 48 million metric tons of CO2 are used every year to extract oil. Of that, 75 percent is naturally occurring carbon dioxide, not captured from power plants or other human emissions.

- Cost concerns mean that oil companies are more inclined to use naturally occurring carbon dioxide. At $17 a ton, Denbury Resources captures carbon from underground and pipes it to oil fields. Carbon from a coal-fired power plant could reach about $70 per ton, Evans said.

Bottom Line:

Williams is correct to say that carbon dioxide is a commodity. Carbon dioxide has the potential to aide in the recovery of billions of barrels of oil. But the gas that Texas oilmen are buying is not the gas emitted by power producers and fretted over by environmentalists. Rather, the oilmen are paying close to $20 a ton for gas that occurred naturally, gas that was piped from underground to oil wells.

Got something that needs checking? E-mail us at factcheck@cnn.com

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Dono

    What is this 70 per ton cost? The cost to collect? The cost to transport to the oil field? Producing CO2 is free because its a waster product of energy production. Sounds like the fact checkers need a few more facts.

    July 17, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Garden gnome

      Of course CO2 is freely produced by your truck and land-mower ! But to get a bottle of (almost) pure CO2, you need to do some extra steps that you have to pay for. Exactly like O2 bottles which you can't get for free even though oxygen is in the atmosphere and is produced freely by any green plant... You have to isolate the gas present in the atmosphere by some enriching process and collect it into pressurized containers. All this requires energy and energy has a cost. Maybe some welder could tell us the prices of its bottles so we can compare with the price of $20/ton. I know they use Argon/CO2 as inert gases in MIG/TIG welding.

      July 19, 2010 at 3:19 am | Report abuse |
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    March 17, 2014 at 5:47 am | Report abuse |