West Texas plant offers energy and pollution solutions

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by BYRON HARRIS

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WFAA

Posted on February 15, 2011 at 10:55 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 16 at 8:30 PM

Texas Clean Energy Project

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What if every time you flipped a switch, you could help produce oil?

In a world where every source of electricity has some environmental drawback, making energy and producing energy as a by-product seems to good to be true.

But in the Permian Basin near Odessa, the Texas Clean Energy Project will do just that.

Oil wells in the Permian have been pumping for decades. Many would now be approaching the end of their productive lives were not for carbon dioxide.

In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, CO2, is regarded as a bad guy. It's an invisible greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, and — some say — to this season's stunning cold snap.

Conventional electric plants pump tons of CO2 out of their stacks.

But in the oil patch, CO2 is a good guy.

Oil producers pipe the gas down into oil fields. Once in contact with crude, it makes the oil flow more easily, helping squeeze more petroleum out of old wells.

"This [CO2] has taken some of these oil wells that are very near to being plugged and abandoned, and put another 20 years of life into them," said Russell Martin. His firm, Blue Source, sells CO2 to oil producers.

Carbon dioxide is so valuable, oil companies pipe it into West Texas all the way from Colorado, where it's found in natural reserves.

Where there's oil in the ground, it doesn't make sense to pump C02 into the air when that gas can be used for crude production.

Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller has been working to create a coal-fueled electric plant whose CO2 could be used by oil producer.

"We've spent the last three-and-a-half years trying to build the cleanest coal plant in the world," she said, standing on the edge of the 600-acre Texas Clean Energy Project (TCEP) site near the town of Penwell, a few miles from Odessa.

The $2.2 billion facility will burn coal to produce electricity when it cranks up in about three years. But it will do much more.

"It really takes 90 percent of the pollutants out of the coal and captures the carbon dioxide," Miller explaines.

The CO2 will be sold to oil producers to help them keep old wells going. The electricity will go to consumers.

As a by-product, the plant will produce tons of fertilizer every week which will be sold to farmers.

"A lot of people realize in this country that if you're going to use coal, or 250  years of it, you've got to do it in a really clean way, and this is a way to do it," the former Dallas mayor said.

Miller has had to marshal all her political skills to get federal, state and local entities to cooperate to enable the plant's construction.

There are still a few hurdles left, but a major obstacle was cleared in December when the plant received a Texas air permit.

Eric Redman's company, Summit Power, is building TCEP. The venture is a formidable technological challenge.

It's almost three factories: One to make electricity, one to produce and capture C02, and a third to make urea fertilizer — all coupled together.

The technologies are proven, but since it's never been done before, the plant is expensive. One financial keystone is $450 million in federal money.  But Redman expects the cost to go down as similar plants are built.

The oil fields of the Permian Basin alone could utilize the C02 from nine more TCEPs.

"This is plant  No. 1 of what we hope will be a whole series of plants to make reasonably-priced electricity, and also make a contribution to energy security, oil production, and climate improvement," Redman said.

Some environmentalists oppose TCEP because it will still produce some CO2, although much less than any other fossil-fueled plants.

Miller and Redman acknowledge that TCEP is not a perfect solution. They point out, however, that it's here now; uses an abundant fuel; and can help stretch domestic oil porduction in the process.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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