Ryan Grim: So, two weeks ago on this podcast I spoke with my former Intercept colleague, Kate Aronoff, who now covers climate and energy for The New Republic. And we talked about her experience covering a major Energy Conference in Houston called CeraWeek.
Kate Aronoff: To give people a bit of background: I don’t go to a ton of corporate conferences, but I assume this genre of thing happens somewhat often. But the other night there was, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of CERAWeek, a musical put on by Broadway performers — who themselves are very talented, no gripe with them certainly. But the musical told the story of the U.S. oil and gas industry through a series of edited Broadway show tunes, which is exactly as bad as you think it is — and much worse, I would argue. I was physically taken aback.
RG: The war in Ukraine has renewed conversations in Washington about actually passing a major clean energy package and Joe Manchin, at the conference, laid out in some pretty precise detail what exactly he was willing to support — and at what cost.
Among people following this issue closely, there’s now real confidence that a major package might actually get done, even after it was left for dead in December amid a heap of finger-pointing and recriminations.
But listening to Manchin outline what he was for and what he was against, I realized I wasn’t really familiar enough with the current state of the clean energy industry to understand if what he was saying was blowing smoke, or serious.
He laid out a lot of his thinking at a press conference at CeraWeek, which Kate wrote about for TNR. She also shared audio with us from the press conference.
Now one of the people I’ve trusted for years on this question of what technology is real is an old friend of mine named Duchuy Huynh, who I met back when we were both just out of college. His career took a sharp turn about 15 years ago when he got deep into the world of fossil fuel energy conservation and carbon tech.
We spend a lot of time in this podcast hovering at 30,000 feet or diving hundreds of years back into history, or talking in theoretical, big picture terms — but today, I wanted to try to get a handle on exactly what we mean when we say clean energy, and what’s actually doable in the short, medium, and long-term.
Duchuy Huynh, welcome to Deconstructed.
Duchuy Huynh: Thank you for having me.
RG: And so, Duchuy, you’re a founder, right, of Green Cooling Tower Solutions.
DH: One of the founders, yes.
RG: So to let the listeners in on how we put this episode together: You and I met, what 22 or 23 years ago.
DH: Long time ago. [Laughs.]
RG: A very long time ago, in New York City. You were dating a very good friend of my girlfriend. Both of those girlfriends have now become our wives. And you and I have stayed in touch over the years. And I’ve been really excited to watch the journey that you’ve taken in different directions, but you’ve been doing this for at least a decade and, prior to this, had gotten into kind of clean energy before a lot of people really had any idea what what clean energy — and, and not just clean energy, but all of the concomitant reduction of emissions and pollutions around it.
So give us a little bit of a rundown of what you’ve been up to the last 20 years. And also, what does Green Cooling Tower Solutions do? So that as people listen to your assessment of where we’re headed, they’ll know where you might have your own biases, and where you’ve got your own expertise.
DH: Sure. Thank you. Thank you. Yes, it’s been quite a long time. And yeah, our career paths have definitely gone in different directions there.
But when I left New York, right around that time, probably in ’05 or ’06, I felt like I wanted to get my feet on the ground a little bit more to really explore the food-energy-water matrix, that really could use a lot of improvement.
I am originally from Louisiana, so I moved back down — to raise a family, obviously — and to explore where I can find a lot of industries located nearby. So that was what drove me here.
And around 2012, we got an energy efficiency patent, essentially, that we introduced to industrial refiners. And it was mainly just a play to get a lot more energy efficiency out of industrial processes. We’ve taken that into a lot of different avenues: We’ve used that for wastewater treatment; we’ve used it for evaporation technologies and desalination technologies; and our most recent foray with using an offtake of that technology, [which] is carbon capture. So it’s something that we’ve been working on for quite some time.
So we have been working on the renewable/waste stream industrial processes. So we’ve familiarized ourselves quite a bit with how things work, and how we can make them better, essentially.
RG: And I enjoy talking about this kind of stuff, because being in Washington, it’s easy to become extremely pessimistic about the future here and just not see much hope at all for where this is headed. But in the background, as Washington has been, completely failing to keep up its end of the bargain. There have been some serious advances that if they can be kickstarted now, if they can get some federal push, it feels like there’s still a shot.
And so you and I were talking recently about Joe Manchin’s appearance at the CeraWeek Conference, which is this gigantic Houston energy conference, where he talked in specific detail about what he would be willing to support when it comes to a basically a climate package — now, he also wants other elements of it. He wants tax increases on the rich and major corporations; he wants half of it to go toward deficit reduction. He wants to do the drug price negotiation piece, and then he’s fine using the other half of that toward energy. But he wants all energy subsidies, not just clean energy. But there hasn’t been much attention or focus on how detailed he’s been in going into what he’s willing to get behind.
And so first of all, this CeraWeek conference, it’s not a unique conference. There’s a ton of these giant oil industry conferences that happen around the world. Now, I know there’s been a pandemic on for the last couple years, but when you used to go to these conferences, what were they like? And what was it like coming to them with energy efficiency solutions?
DH: Well, when I started going to these in the early 2010s, there wasn’t a lot of talk about it. I mean, it was a lot of business as usual. So introducing these types of technologies was difficult, to say the least. A lot of these industries, and for good reason, just keep doing what they’re doing. And that’s always been our biggest obstacle — and I’m sure a lot of other companies feel the same — is getting these companies to change what they’re doing. Because what they’re doing works, to a certain extent, and they built a lot of big walls for them to keep doing what they’re doing, essentially, with legislation pricing, a lot of regulation. So it’s been very difficult.
RG: And when you say it works, you mean: It’s profitable for them?
DH: Exactly. I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s completely efficient, the way they’re doing things. And there’s obviously a lot of room for improvement. But they make money and their system works.
RG: Yeah, and Manchin, and we’ll get to this later on in the episode, but he even specifically starts talking about these companies. And he’s like, if there are proven efficiencies out there that you’re not taking advantage of just because you’re too lazy to, you shouldn’t exist.
It’s kind of a radical line from Manchin. I want to get to that one later. But let’s start with mansion’s first response to a New York Times reporter at the conference.
Lisa Friedman: Senator Manchin, hi, Lisa Friedman from the New York Times. Two questions: Could you tell us where things are on negotiations over reconfiguring the Build Back Better?
Sen. Joe Manchin: There is no Build Back Better.
LF: Would you [laughs] — would you vote on the climate provisions —
JM: Let me — I don’t mean that to be sarcastic. That bill was a major, mammoth piece of legislation, OK? And the reason I had concerns from day one is that we shouldn’t be doing that much policy. Reconciliation was never designed for us to do policy. It was designed for us to get our financial house in order. It truly was. But here we are changing the whole social — social restructuring of our society. And that was the biggest thing that I had, OK?
There’s so many good things that we all have aspirations to do. A lot of good things. And but with that, we should go through a process where there’s a hearing, it’s transparent, it’s open to the public, and then we have a markup — and the markup, basically, is where people put their ideas and make it better or something they think will be detrimental to their area. That’s the process we have. We bypassed all that. So I said: No.
Now what we’re talking about now is one thing that all Democrats agreed on, was the 2017 tax cuts, the way they were implemented were weighted unfairly. And it did not basically spin off the amount of revenue we needed to pay down our debt. So we’re 30 — I think 30,200,000,000,000, as of this morning, is our debt right now. And it grows every day. Every day. You got to change that trajectory.
So I says: If we all agree, and we have agreement on one thing, then use it to get your financial house in order. Basically, if the tax code is competitive, that’s fair, and allows us to compete, and grow, and be prosperous, but pay the bills, and then use revenue from that to pay down debt, to get your finances in order.
We can still do that. We can still do the one with the drug thing. I said: That’s the most popular thing we have, getting our drugs — we know we can do that. And then we can do, maybe, an all-inclusive climate package to some extent. And that basically — they know where I stand — if it doesn’t have an all-in policy to where you’re treating the horsepower that you need from your fossil, which is called oil and natural gas, OK? And the investments that we’re going to need in the new nuclear reactors, if you will, and also in geothermal, and all the things that we’re talking about with our wind and solar and all that — you can’t just abandon one. And that’s what they were doing. I just said I’m not for that. So we’ll see whether they want to go down that path or not.
LF: Can I just ask: How do you reconcile investing more in oil and gas with the IEA, that said if we want to hit 1.5, we need to stop exploration investment in fossil fuels — ?
JM: Well, we need to do it cleaner than we’ve ever done it before. And we do produce the oil, and we do extract the oil, and we do it better than most anyplace in the world.
RG: So that’s Joe Manchin, in his own words, laying out kind of the broad contours of his package. And then he says that he wants all the different horses funded.
So from your perspective, if Democrats do take this approach, and this seems to be either take it or leave it: it’s either this or there’s nothing. If there is this, across the board, all energy to be subsidized, is it still a big win for the clean energy side, because right now the field is tilted heavily against them?
DH: I think it’s a win. I mean, anything is a win that supports an early technology. So, fortunately, higher energy costs, high fossil fuel energy cost, it actually helps early technology companies in efficiency and alternative energy, renewable energy. It really does help us quite a bit, because the alternative is paying high fossil fuel prices. So we do get a lot more attention when prices are high. So it does help us quite a bit.
I mean, I’m personally not against fossil fuels. We do help fossil fuels become more efficient. And I think that’s a big key to what Mr. Manchin’s talking about. I mean, I don’t know him that well, but I did listen to his responses here. And I have to agree with a lot of them. We do have to provide fossil fuels an off-ramp, essentially, to become greener as the renewables and next generation technologies take place. And I think that the off-ramp is going to be quite long.
RG: Right. And it’s a recognition that that is the reality of it.
He goes into a lot more detail coming up. So let’s play the next clip here:
JM: With that being said, seeing what’s happening in Europe right now, in Ukraine, I think that’s a little different. It’s global, it’s a global market, it’s not just the United States market. So if we go down the path and we exclude all fossils quicker than the rest of the world, [who] is dependent upon them — And I’ve said this: You take us out of the fossil business, there will be another country to step up and spend the money for technology. And the research and developments are going to be needed to use it cleaner, because they’re going to still use it. They’re going to still use it. And they want to put a carbon fee and all these things. And they want to put basically a border adjustment, a border fee — not until you have the technology can you justify doing that.
The bottom line is if we have technology that shows you can use certain products, whether it be oil, gas, and coal, and you’re not using the latest, greatest technology to reduce the emissions from it, then you’re going to pay the price to get into our market. That’s how you enforce it. And that’s how basically you get the rest of the world to move in and transition.
But just think [about those who don’t use it? Go tell (indistinct name) that].
RG: A couple of premises I want to interrogate there. One is if we move off of fossil fuels, he’s saying, there’s nobody else in the world that’s going to jump in and do the research and do the investment to move quickly — they’re gonna continue to use fossil fuels until the planet burns or whatever.
And then secondly, he talks about forcing the industry to use the “latest, greatest,” as he calls it, “technology.” So what, what do you think of that first premise? And what does it take to do the second thing?
DH: I have to agree with them that if the U.S. gets off of oil or fossil altogether, and the research doesn’t support emissions reduction, I have to agree that there are very few bodies that could support our industries, like the U.S. government could.
I mean, I use a lot of technology, and I use a lot of scientists from government research labs, and these guys have been doing this for a long time. Some of the smartest guys in the world, obviously. And you can’t get that for free. I mean it costs a lot of money and it takes a long time to get technologies like that to market. And, I mean, I know some of these technologies —
RG: But what kind of technologies?
DH: I mean, we’re talking about next generation nuclear — fission reactors — we’re talking about new efficient electrolysis methods.
RG: And what’s that?
DH: Electrolysis is essentially electrolyzing any material, but what we’re talking about in this conversation is electrolysis of either water to create hydrogen — and I know that hydrogen is a big topic that Manchin’s talking about — or electrolyzing carbon dioxide, CO2, essentially, to create hydrogen or taking it the next step to produce carbon-neutral fuels out of out of CO2, essentially. So that’s been a big area of research and development right now that’s coming to market right now.
RG: Taking CO2 out of the air and producing energy with it?
DH: Absolutely. Yeah.
There’s two methods you could look at: There’s point source, which is essentially capturing at the point of emission, which is like at a power plant, or a refinery, essentially.
Or there’s direct air capture. It’s just picking any piece of real estate and putting up a carbon-capture plant and just capturing it directly from the air.
RG: And you said it’s starting to come to market?
DH: It is. It is. I believe there’s been some smaller installations in Europe and Canada that have been piloted. And I know there’s another one proposed to be built in West Texas probably next year, which would dwarf even the largest ones built to date by many times over.
It’s new technology. It’s proven, but there still will be a lot of room for improvement. I think the price per tonne of carbon with these technologies is quite high. I think everyone’s kind of in the race to get the price per tonne of carbon well below what these technologies are capable of.
RG: Gotcha. All right, let’s roll some more Manchin.
Miranda Wilson: Senator, hi, Miranda Wilson of E&E News. The clean energy tax provisions in the Build Back Better Act are a priority for the administration also for electric utilities right now. Is that something that you would support in the standalone climate package?
JM: Which one do you want to ask about? [Laughs.]
MW: [Laughs.] I guess all of them —
JM: Well, first of all, $4,500, that’s gone. To me, it was a non-starter. And I come from a union state, and I support union in everything I can, but you just can’t start picking and choosing to use this product. I said: Do you want a cleaner environment? Do you want EV vehicles or not? Now you’re going to start giving favors on who produces it? Didn’t make any sense to me.
Now, if we’re going to get in the EV business, we know that’s exactly — there has to be some incentives. So there will be incentives in that to a certain extent if that’s where we go. I’m just not putting all my eggs in one basket. So whatever I do for EVs, I do exactly for hydrogen. Because I truly believe I’m not going to get caught — if I have one vote to get our country caught in a situation where we’re totally dependent on one direction and one mode of transportation, and right now that I know 80-90 percent is controlled by China. And the way that they’re enslaving people around the world to get the resources they do for the refineries, I’m not going down there.
And here’s the other thing I would do: I’m also going to put a sunset — you’re telling me we’re gonna do all these things, we’re gonna start producing in America, we’re gonna start refining in America, and yet you’re still depending on China and all the rest of the world to do the heavy lifting and dirty work, but you want the results from that. If we don’t start producing ourselves then those credits should go away. They should be sunsetted, because you’re not serious. So if you’re serious, and you’re in an environmental community, and you’re serious, let’s get with it. Let’s start working together. Don’t take me to court every time you don’t like what I’m doing.
RG: All right. I don’t know exactly what he means about being taken to court every second that you don’t like what he’s doing, but on the electric vehicles, basically the $4,500 there, correct me if I’m wrong, he’s saying that in the original bill, the tax credits, the incentives for electric vehicles were only going to union car companies. Now, under his version, any electric vehicle company would be able to get them — and he makes a clean point, which is if you believe that this is a civilization-level catastrophic event, you can’t hold it up simply over union wages. OK fine. And, again, Manchin is Manchin, so he’s going to get his way on a lot of this stuff.
He talked a lot at this event about hydrogen. And I don’t know anything about hydrogen. How serious is hydrogen as a potential clean energy fuel? Because my basic understanding is that currently it takes a lot of energy to make it. But I’m curious for your read on what the prospects are for hydrogen and why you think he might be so excited about it?
DH: Well, obviously, it’s getting a lot of press these days, hydrogen. It’s already used every day in industrial processes — refining fertilizer, food processing. I guess the excitement around hydrogen today is the ability for it to displace liquid fuels for transportation, like gasoline, diesel. I think it’s very promising. I mean obviously that’s something we’re working on today. But I think it’s more geared towards part-electrified vehicles, like ships, planes, long-distance trucks, it’s already in use. I mean, you can find hydrogen fuel stations. They’re limited today, but I’m sure they’ll expand quite a bit. It’s there today. It works. But you’re right, it is energy intensive. It really, really is.
RG: And am I right, it makes use of a lot of current fossil fuel infrastructure? So, he talks later about pipelines, if they stopped moving natural gas or they stopped moving oil, the pipelines could move hydrogen. Is that one of the reasons that the industry is excited about hydrogen, that so much of the infrastructure is already there for it?
DH: That’s exactly why. I mean, you don’t have to buy a new car. You don’t have to buy a new ship or plane if you convert hydrogen into a liquid fuel. But hydrogen to fuel these purposely-built vessels with engines capable of burning hydrogen, there is some infrastructure there already available. So hydrogen and CO2 pipelines, they’re definitely already underway. I mean, I know there’s been a lot of infrastructure for CO2, especially, but I know hydrogen is right behind it. I don’t see why government shouldn’t greenlight those pipelines right away. I mean, maybe it’s part of this defense production act. Hopefully, they see the importance of CO2 and hydrogen pipelines to get the industry moving in the right direction.
But going back to your first point, hydrogen is — it’s deceptive. I mean, there are different ways to produce hydrogen essentially. And today, I mean, I’d say over 90 percent of it is fossil-fuel based, so it isn’t quite clean. So I mean, I don’t know if you’ve seen the color matrix of hydrogen, but it’s a little confusing, because hydrogen is odorless and colorless, but people have put a lot of different colors to the matrix of hydrogen. So they call coal and lignite gasification — hydrogen produced by coal and lignite — gray and black, brown, which is the most common type of hydrogen used by steam methane reforming of natural gas, so it’s not quite clean at all. The big rage now is blue — blue hydrogen — and it’s essentially the same as brown, steam methane reforming of natural gas, but they put a twist on it, which is they capture the carbon produced by that process. So it’s better, but it’s definitely not carbon neutral at all. It’s much better than brown.
And then there’s green, which everyone hopes to achieve, which is using electrolysis, like I mentioned before, on water, which is the huge demand on power. So, if you use electrolysis from renewable energy, it turns the hydrogen green, essentially.
RG: OK. Let’s jump to the next Manchin cut, where he talks about production tax credits and more on hydrogen and then some on transmission.
Reporter: My question is: What are you willing to do on wind and solar?
Reporter: And transmission?
JM: Oh yeah.
Reporter: What are you willing to do specifically? Like if there was a bill that came, what would you want to do?
JM: Well, basically, we have a 10-year production tax credit and all these credits we’ve been giving, production tax credits, they cut down basically hydrogen to six years from 10, and I’m gonna put it back to 10 if we have a bill. I’ll treat them all the same, everyone is treated the same. They want a transmission for us basically for the treasury to pay, on the amount of money that we build transmission lines. I said: I’ll defer, but I’m not going to give you the money, because I know how profitable transmission is. You will pay back eventually, OK?
But the bottom line is: We will stoke the fires, if you will, to build them quicker, to build the transmission, because most of the large wind and large solar is going to be in areas where we don’t have a large population or network of transmission. So I’m all for those. I’m all for that.
I’m also for the pipelines, basically, that could be retrofitted for hydrogen lines. We should be looking at that, too. Because building the pipeline god, that’s an unmerciful task.
RG: You know, first of all, I love the way that he uses the I when talking about this legislation that’s supposed to be written by the House and the Senate.
RG: He’s like: I’ll defer because it’s profitable. But he’s not wrong! [Laughs.] It’s his call.
OK, so what does he mean here? I don’t care too much about the 6-10-year thing. That feels like in the weeds, but if there’s something interesting there, feel free to let me know. But I’m curious about: When he’s talking about transmission, he talks about West Virginia having massive wind farms, but also West Virginia being nowhere near people and so you need to get that energy where it needs to go. So how much of a role does the federal government need to play in ramping up that capacity?
DH: I really do think they have to be the lead. I mean, when he’s talking about the timeframes, I mean, a lot of companies are basing their investment decisions on that runway. Essentially, if the runway is too short then, obviously, that investment decision is uncertain, right?
RG: Oh, you mean the 6-10?
DH: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
RG: Oh, so that is actually important. So it’s important to get the money in off the sidelines. Because if it looks like they have 10 years then it’s worth investing, whereas at six it might not be?
RG: OK. Interesting.
DH: And that’s very important in investment decisions. I mean, and we’re talking about large quantities and maybe low margins, essentially, when a lot of players get into the game. So if it’s not subsidized by the government, then obviously the market forces kind of dictate. So a lot of investment decisions are based on subsidies in those time frames.
I mean, I know we’re talking about these carbon credits, essentially, with a 12-year horizon, and we’d like to see more certainty in it, or extensions, even. When you’re talking about these projects, I mean, these projects have to be planned long in advance, and they have to have some kind of certainty for payback, or else, I mean, not a lot of people have these kind of pockets to spend hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars on a plant. So you’re going to the banks, and they want to see some certainty in the projections.
RG: That makes sense. They don’t want to be a year or two into getting off the ground, and then the subsidy vanishes because Congress decided to have a government shutdown over, like, a wall or something.
DH: Absolutely. And I think that’s a real big obstacle for a lot of these projects to get kicked off.
RG: Right. You just can’t trust that it’s gonna be there. So what about on the transmission side? How far are we away from where we need to be?
DH: We’re a lot better than we were when we started wind in these remote areas. Solar was a little bit better. But I don’t know if you remember, we had a lot of wind farms out in the Midwest that were connected to essentially nothing, they were essentially on an island. And it took a long time to get your transmission connected to population centers. So essentially what happened was the credits got way ahead of infrastructure. So transmission wasn’t connected. A lot of banks capitalized on the tax credits, but the electricity just didn’t get anywhere.
But I mean, when we talk about transmission benefiting the future of energy, I think we have to start talking about smart grids, how electric cars can maybe even work both ways, like to supply power when necessary, instead of just being parked in the driveway. So I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in that space. It’s not my specialty, but I think it’s really interesting to know that electric vehicles can actually supply power to the grid — if the regulation is there and the will of the power company is there to allow that to happen. Because obviously that cuts into their business plan, essentially.
RG: Right. OK. The next cut is him talking about pipelines.
JM: I’m also for the pipelines, basically, that could be retrofitted and resealed for hydrogen mines. We should be looking at that too. Because building a pipeline — god — that’s an unmerciful task.
Reporter: My question is really on solar and wind.
JM: Solar and wind I support. Trust me. In West Virginia we have one of the largest wind farms East of the Mississippi. And I’m all for wind. I’m all for solar. But it can only do so much right now. Storage. I’m all for storage. We’re looking at that. We’re putting a lot of money in research and development for technology for storage. I’m not supportive of all the above. I just don’t want to be counting on something until I see it’s there. I guess that’s it.
RG: Yeah. So where are we when it comes to storage and wind and solar capacity?
DH: Well, storage is tricky, because there’s not a lot of big options in the utility space, utility scale storage. I mean, there’s obviously pump storage, but there’s limited places you can use that, essentially — using unused energy, renewable hopefully, or next generation nuclear, something that might not be used during certain hours of the day, and pumping it way upstream into elevation, and just essentially building a hydrodam, essentially to use the energy when necessary. So that’s the only very large utility scale storage option that’s been used to date. I mean, I know battery technologies have come a long way. But as you see, with the metals crunch that we’re having, because of this Russia-Ukraine situation, there’s some uncertainty there, too. And obviously, you know, metals are expensive, and even the largest lithium storage facility, you know, could only power the nearby city for, you know, a matter of minutes. So we’re not quite there with battery storage.
RG: So let’s jump to the last Manchin clip where he talks about methane flaring.
Reporter: Are you going to require crackdowns on flaring and methane emissions, and any accountability?
JM: Anytime there’s technology, and if the technology is proven, OK, and you don’t use technology unless you’re [unintelligible], and you should be out of business.
If you’re basically not using the technology that has been proven into the field that’ll reduce emissions, and you won’t use it because of the bottom line, the profit, you shouldn’t be in business. I have no problem there.
But on the other hand, there’s a transition that goes on. I’ll give you a perfect example: Back to the Clean Air Act, I come from coal country, where we come from, and the bottom line was we were switching. They did coal switching at first until the scrubbers came online, Low NOx boilers and diagnosis for mercury, then we were able to — if you didn’t switch it in a period of time, you’re out. And we shut down a lot of the older plants.
And basically with flaring right now, let’s build the pipelines. Let them build the pipelines that takes the methane off, and the gathering points. That’s what they tell me — If I’m wrong, or you know more than I know about that — but that’s what I hear from the field. They can’t get the pipeline, and so they’re being condemned for the flaring and the emissions that come in. But no, I hear from all those drillers, in the East, anyway, in West Virginia, big Marcellus and Utica Shale, they’re capturing methane. They have not a bit of problem. But I just think we gotta be able, as government, to be very clear in our regulatory agencies of what we expect you to do and why we expect it. That it makes sense because there’s technology and here’s how you do it better. I should be working with you, not against you.
Now once I go out the first time and said you made a mistake here and you’re wrong, here’s how you have to change that and how many days until you start changing this, and I come back for a second visit, if you haven’t, I’m going to fine you. Third visit I’m going to shut you down. How simple is that? That’s how I govern.
RG: That’s the radical Manchin I love to hear. He’s gonna shut you down if you’re not using the technology that exists just for your bottom line. But what does he mean when he says that these drillers are doing methane flaring because they don’t have the pipeline capacity? And is this something that Build Back Better was supposed to address? I mean, clearly, if it’s written by Manchin, it will. But what’s he talking about, basically?
DH: Yeah, so this is actually something that we worked with many years ago with the trapped gas in upstream oil and gas production. You have to think of these places being very remote. And if there isn’t a large volume of gas to be sent via pipeline, it’s not very efficient to transport it, either by truck or other means, by storage, essentially. So it’s essentially trapped gas. So it’s not cost-effective for them to transport it, unless they do have a pipeline, and they haven’t built it, these pipelines to these very remote wells, just because of the cost.
So it has become a big problem, just because the wells have gotten bigger, they’ve been more remote, and we drilled more. It’s a big problem. I mean, if you’ve ever flown into Midland, Texas, I mean, you would think the city would be millions — that the lights would be reflective of a city that might be in the millions. But it’s essentially just flares in the air, right? So it looks like a big city. That’s all it is. Yeah. So it’s trapped gas, it’s not cost-effective to move it. But maybe the price of natural gas stays at a level where it’s feasible for them to build the pipelines they haven’t built already.
The reason that hasn’t been built, obviously, is because historically natural gas has been relatively cheap. I mean, just this last month was a major spike, but for them we weren’t talking about natural gas being very expensive, since in the Enron days, you know, from early 2000s.
RG: Right. Why are they burning it? Why don’t they just leave it in the ground? Like, what am I missing there?
DH: Well, it comes up with the oil, right? They have the oil pipelines. So the methane comes up with the oil as well, with the other materials — I mean, there’s produced water, methane, and oil. So they separate it and essentially pipeline the oil to the refineries or to the ships, but they still haven’t figured out the methane problem.
So I mean, we have worked with them. And they do have a few smaller solutions to use the methane in production, in some ancillary processes that they might use on site. But yeah, they just haven’t found the cost-benefit analysis to work out to build the pipelines to these remote facilities for just gas.
RG: And methane, correct me if I’m wrong, is 100 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon, but it moves out of the atmosphere faster? How bad is this? Like, when you fly into Midland and you see those lights burning, are you like: Oh, God, we are so screwed.
DH: Well, it’s discouraging, to say the least. I mean, it’s very discouraging, because there are ways to use the trapped gas for other purposes. I mean, not only does West Texas have a gas and methane problem, they have a water problem as well. So we’re trying to find ways — and I’m sure we’re not the only ones trying to do it, too — to solve a lot of problems with the same solution.
So it’s discouraging, because I know there are things that can be done to take care of a lot of problems with the same solution. So there’s not a lot of talk about it, but many years ago — maybe not that many, maybe five or six years ago — Oklahoma and West Texas had a big problem with earthquakes. I don’t know if you remember that.
RG: Mhmm. I do remember that.
DH: It was daily earthquakes. I mean, small earthquakes, but a lot more frequent than ever before. And what the problem was not the fracking, not the drilling exercises, but it was wastewater disposal. They were actually injecting wastewater — that came up with oil and gas in these production wells — into dry wells or spent wells, whichever wells they could feasibly truck it to, and just pump it down hole. So they were actually pumping at such a velocity and pressure, volume and pressure, that it lubricated the tectonic plates.
DH: So that’s what created all the seismic activity. And I mean, a lot of companies in the industry don’t talk about it, but there was a direct correlation. So as soon as they limited the pressure and the volume of these disposal wells, the seismic activity, you know, reduced quite substantially. So, not only do they have that problem with disposal water, but they have a groundwater problem, too, because they’re using so much water in the production to get the oil and gas out. So it seems like it would make sense for them to use all the energy, which is the methane, to clean the water. And I know there are a lot of companies that are working on that problem right now, not just us.
We’re taping this on Thursday. We just reported — my colleagues, Nausicaa Renner and Austin Ahlman reported — that the Biden administration is drafting an order that would invoke the Defense Production Act. It is not clear if they will implement it, but they’re drafting it, and we obtained a copy of it, that would basically kind of use this 1950s era law that would say that we’re in a crisis, and we’re going to use the Defense Production Act to secure mining access to the minerals and elements needed for clean energy. How useful is that given that so many of the elements are actually outside of the United States? Where are we going to get the different ingredients that we need for this clean energy revolution?
DH: Well, I mean, I know, given the circumstances with Russia and Ukraine, Russia is a large producer of metals, but not quite the metals that that everyone would think of. They’re definitely not the one of the largest lithium producers. They are a large producer of, say, nickel, which is very important for batteries, and stainless steel, but a lot of other ones that they produce are maybe not as important for electric vehicles, in particular.
But I would guess that lithium production, which is mainly in Australia, South America, could come to the United States. I mean, lithium is pretty abundant in nature. You can even extract it from seawater. There are a lot of companies that are looking at extracting it from waste waters and waste streams, essentially. So it is pretty abundant. It’s just in, in different streams, it’s in lower quantities, lower percentages. So it really depends on how much overburden you have to get through to get to the lithium, and how energy intensive it is to get there. But I’ve seen a lot of promising technologies for lithium production in the United States.
RG: And so as somebody who’s right at the heart of this industry, where are you on the hope scale that we’re going to be able to come out of this with a sustainable future for our children, our grandchildren, and their children?
DH: Well, it’s really hard to look that far into the future. But I mean, I think it’s very feasible. I mean, I see technologies that are working today at pilot scales and in small scales that might be ready for large-scale production, maybe, in three to five years, that can really change the landscape of what we’re doing now.
But that doesn’t mean that they’ll be adopted by any means, which is the whole problem with introducing new technologies. I mean, just because it works doesn’t mean that you’ll be financially successful. And that’s probably been true with a lot of people that came before me.
But I’m optimistic that this next generation nuclear power can make a dramatic change for power generation, obviously. So I see that we can do a lot of things that can use renewables, but we still need something like nuclear to be reliable enough for these companies to build these plants in certain locations for a reliable power source. Maybe we’re not talking about refining and fossil fuel-type companies anymore that depend on this energy. Maybe we’re talking about carbon-capture plants that use a lot of electrolysis a few years from now. Maybe these next generation nuclear plants are built just to power carbon-capture plants to really get us to carbon negative as quickly as possible.
So I’m optimistic that the technology is there. We just have to make sure that there’s enough support to get us to viability and financial success.
RG: And I guess that’s up to Joe Manchin.
Duchuy, thanks so much for taking some time today. I really appreciate it.
DH: Oh, thank you for having me.
RG: That was Duchuy Huynh, CEO and Director at Green Cooling Tower Solutions, and that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. This episode was produced by José Olivares. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.
If you enjoy this podcast, be sure to also check out Intercepted, as well as Murderville, which is now in its second season.
And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please go leave us a rating or a review — or both! It helps people find the show. If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much.
See you soon.