New Study: Carbon Reduction Opportunities for Oil Industry Are Significant


The production and use of petroleum-based fuels are responsible for approximately half of the state's entire carbon emissions. While the substitution of cleaner energy sources for crude oil, like advanced renewable fuels made from agricultural waste, is a key strategy to reduce carbon pollution, it is also important to employ technologies that can directly reduce the pollution generated from crude oil extraction and refining.

A new study from Tetra Tech and NRDC, Carbon Reduction Opportunities in the California Petroleum Industry, looks at significant, concrete steps that the California oil industry can adopt today to directly curb its carbon emissions. These readily available technologies could also go a long way to meeting the industry's responsibility under California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS).

If modest adoption of just five carbon reduction technologies occurred in California, nearly 3 million to 6.6 million metric tons could be reduced annually in 2020. The full potential of these technologies -- if adopted across the board -- would result in 20 million metric tons of reduction annually, equivalent to the removal of nearly 5 million passenger vehicles from the road.

The five approaches evaluated by the study to reduce carbon pollution directly from the petroleum supply chain include:

  • Renewable steam generation: using solar power to generate steam for enhanced oil recovery, rather than combusting fossil fuels for that purpose.
  • Steam generation with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS): capturing and storing the flue gas emissions from once-through steam generators used in enhanced oil recovery.
  • Refinery energy efficiency: enabling refineries to use less energy in their operations.
  • Refinery CCS: capturing and storing carbon emissions resulting from the energy-intensive hydrogen processes needed for refining crude oil.
  • Renewable refinery feedstocks: displacing part of the refinery's crude oil with renewable-based oils and waste oils.

Solar thermal facility developed by BrightSource, Coalinga, California. (Source:

Even moderate adoption of these technologies could help refiners meet the goals of California's LCFS. The standard requires oil companies to reduce their carbon intensity by 10 percent, or approximately 17 million metric tons, by 2020. Additional opportunities -- such as renewable electricity and hydrogen use at refineries, use of other cleaner technologies at oil production operations, and efficiency improvements at crude oil production facilities -- could help reduce carbon emissions and other air pollutants further, providing public health benefits.

With over 50,000 active oil wells and 18 refineries in the state, the deployment of cleaner technologies in the petroleum sector can go a long way to help meet the state’s climate and air quality goals. Overall, the potential of the oil industry to directly reduce carbon emissions is sizable, and the technologies to do so are available and viable.