Energy & Environment

Low Oil Prices Lead To Shutdown Of Much-Hyped Carbon Capture System Outside Houston

NRG’s Petra Nova system relies on a strong oil market to be profitable.

Florian Martin/Houston Public Media
Petra Nova carbon capture system at NRG’s. W.A. Parish coal power plant in Fort Bend County.


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Electricity company NRG and JX Nippon Oil and Gas Exploration have suspended operation of their much-hyped carbon capture system at NRG's W.A. Parish coal power plant near Sugar Land.

The Petra Nova system was opened to great fanfare a little more than three years ago. It captures CO2 from coal power production and pipes it to Hilcorp's West Ranch oil field 80 miles away, where it's used to extract oil from the ground – a method called enhanced oil recovery.

The oil is supposed to pay for the expensive operation. But with the market crashing this year, that's not happening.

On top of that, Petra Nova did not supply enough CO2 to the oil field to extract a profitable amount of crude, said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer at the University of Houston.

Krishnamoorti said the plant would likely benefit from more sustained government subsidies.

"If we only want to work with the free market way of doing it, we're going to end up with these sorts of pauses," he said. "Things get started up, things get stopped, things get shut down."

Petra Nova cost $1 billion to build. It was supported with a $190 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

NRG said it plans to reopen it "when economics improve."

Krishnamoorti said the companies should use that time to improve the carbon capture system.

"It might actually prove to be a blessing in disguise," he said. "Because when it comes back, it probably would be more efficient than it ever was before."

The plant captured more than 1.5 million tons of CO2 in 2019, according to NRG. That’s the equivalent of taking about 300,000 cars off the road.

With or without carbon capture, the W.A. Parish plant is a thorn in the eye of environmental groups, who say it's the biggest polluter in Texas.

Krishnamoorti said he doesn't expect the Petra Nova operation to resume for about another year, or whenever oil prices consistently stay above $50 or $60 a barrel.

NRG said the status of Petra Nova will have no impact on electricity rates.

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