Could Alaska be the final destination for Japan’s carbon pollution? The Biden administration wants to find out.

By Nathaniel Herz, Northern Journal - May 8, 2024
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Officials from Japanese energy companies listen to a presentation from U.S. Department of Energy officials at a carbon workshop Tuesday in Anchorage. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

The U.S. Department of Energy’s new study is a reflection of the growing interest in injecting and storing climate-warming carbon pollution in underground reservoirs in Alaska.

For decades, Alaska shipped liquefied natural gas to Japan, which burned the fuel to generate power — and also generated ample climate-warming carbon emissions.

Now, the Biden administration wants to study whether those Japanese emissions could be captured, liquefied and shipped back to Alaska. There, they’d be injected and locked away underground in Cook Inlet, just west of Anchorage, to help stem the warming of the climate.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Energy announced Tuesday at an Anchorage workshop that they’re starting a formal study of the concept, building on Japan-U.S. cooperative agreements announced by the White House last month.

“Even as the decline of natural gas in the Cook Inlet heralds the end of a previous and impressive energy area in this region, awareness and interest is growing here in the region’s potential to become a storehouse for capturing carbon emissions — both domestically and internationally,” said Brad Crabtree, assistant secretary for the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management.

Crabtree spoke Tuesday to an audience at Anchorage’s Sheraton hotel that, in addition to Alaska policymakers and fossil fuel executives, included some 15 representatives of Japan’s energy industries and government.

The Department of Energy’s new study is a reflection of the growing interest in injecting and storing climate-warming carbon pollution in underground reservoirs in Alaska — a trend amplified, in part, by provisions in President Joe Biden’s signature climate law to incentivize greater use of the technology.

Alaska lawmakers are currently debating a bill sponsored by GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy that would establish a legal system for carbon injection and storage. And one Japanese company recently hired an Alaska-based lobbyist, at $7,500 a month, to track carbon-related policy developments in the state.

Many climate advocates are skeptical of carbon storage’s potential to meaningfully reduce global warming, saying it’s expensive, unproven on a large scale and enables continued dependence on fossil fuels.

But Crabtree, in an interview after his announcement, said that certain substantial sources of carbon pollution, aren’t tied to fossil fuel combustion. Cement manufacturing, he noted, generates emissions not just from burning fuels but from a specific chemical process that converts limestone into lime.

“I don’t see this as enabling oil and gas at all,” he said. “I see this as enabling the transformation of our energy industrial economy to be fully decarbonized.”

Brad Crabtree (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

Alaska, however, has to overcome a significant obstacle in order to participate in the carbon storage industry, according to Crabtree: While it has “enormous” storage potential in the form of depleted oil and gas reservoirs, it produces relatively low quantities of emissions from its few major power plants and industrial facilities.

That’s where Japan, and possibly South Korea, come in.

Japan is the world’s fifth highest energy consumer, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s most recent statistics. But while Japan has committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, it has limited capacity to deposit emissions underground, as well as risks to the integrity of storage from earthquakes, Crabtree said.

Japanese businesses have already signed study agreements with international partners to explore the idea of shipping carbon to Malaysia and Indonesia and storing it there. Now, Crabtree’s office will examine whether the same idea is possible in the U.S., with a focus on Alaska.

An official from a Japanese company following those developments, who requested anonymity because of their political sensitivity, described the interest from his country as “very, very early.”

“It’s a tool that’s being evaluated,” the official said. “The economics are painfully expensive.”

Oil companies have long injected carbon into their reservoirs to help extract more petroleum. But the federal government has licensed very few projects solely dedicated to storing carbon to keep it out of the atmosphere.

As of September, the Environmental Protection Agency had issued just two permits that have led to projects, both in Illinois, according to E&E News.

Enhanced tax credits for CO2 storage in Biden’s climate law have boosted industry interest in new projects, but there’s now a major permitting backlog at the EPA. And because the tax credit only applies to carbon captured in the U.S., Japanese emissions shipped to Alaska wouldn’t qualify, Crabtree said.

The energy department’s study, with help from a newly hired contractor, will examine whether the cross-border carbon shipment concept makes technical and economic sense — and what costs and prices for capture and storage would allow such projects to move forward.

One idea is that if Alaska can produce climate-friendly fuels, like hydrogen, to ship to Asia, the same tankers could return to the state carrying carbon emissions.

“We create this value chain of, potentially, exporting energy to Japan and backhauling carbon dioxide, which we then sequester in our rocks,” said John Boyle, Alaska’s commissioner of natural resources.

Studying the technical feasibility should be just the first step, said Kelsey Schober, director of government affairs at Alaska’s branch of the Nature Conservancy, which recently published a study on carbon capture and storage in the state.

“It can’t be the only step. We also have to ask: What are the impacts? Who’s going to feel those impacts the most? Have they been consulted about these projects?” she said.

From an environmental perspective, Schober added, the potential benefits of carbon capture and storage depend on where the pollution is coming from. It’s more valuable, she said, if it’s being used for industries — like cement manufacturing or steelmaking — that are difficult to decarbonize.

“We have to think about prioritizing avoiding and reducing direct emissions — not just using CCUS technologies as a way to bail out existing emission levels,” she said, using an acronym for carbon capture and underground storage.

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