After years of trying to work its way through California’s permitting system, the controversial Hydrogen Energy California project (HECA) appears to be dead. Barring a last minute presentation of new information from the applicant, the California Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission (commonly referred to as the CEC) will most likely terminate the permit application in early 2016. On December 15, 2015, CEC staff recommended the termination because the applicant, SCS Energy California LLC (SCS), has failed to follow through with the submittal of information required by the agency.
Technically speaking, for several months the application has been in a state of suspension granted by the CEC to allow the applicant time to secure more information and agreements for the sequestration of CO2 generated by the project. However, staff now believes that SCS has failed to meet its obligations under that agreement, which led to last week’s recommendation.
CEC staff said a new application may be filed once SCS has sufficient information to describe a complete project.
The news should be one of great relief to opponents of the project, which include the Sierra Club, as well as Bakersfield and Kern County residents, who have voiced numerous environmental and safety concerns about it in the past.
HECA was to have been located on the western outskirts of Bakersfield. It’s backers said the facility would generate clean, hydrogen energy from coal and petroleum coke that would be shipped by rail to the plant. The hydrogen would be used to make electricity and fertilizer. In addition, 90 percent of the facility’s CO2 emissions would have been captured and transported to the nearby Elk Hills Oilfield for underground injection. The injected CO2 would have been used for enhanced oil recovery.
That latter aspect of the project led some opponents to point out that using CO2 as an enhanced oil recovery technique really wasn’t sequestration anyway because it would lead to more fossil fuel production and resultant CO2 emissions that would not have otherwise entered the atmosphere. That became moot, however, when Occidental Petroleum Corporation, the former operator of Elk Hills, decided to spin off all of its California properties into a separate company, California Resources Company (CRC). The new company notified SCS that it was no longer interested in HECA’s CO2, which eventually led to the permitting stalemate as SCS searched for a suitable underground reservoir to inject the gas.
Although SCS has since submitted information indicating that there may be suitable alternative locations to inject the CO2, including at the plant site itself, no agreements to actually do it have been signed and approved. Furthermore, the Kern County Planning and Community Development Department, which had previously expressed concerns about the products to be manufactured and how they complied with the Agricultural Exclusive zoning restrictions at the plant site, also pointed out that the CO2 injection wells were not allowed uses at the plant site either.
Additionally, the new site for CO2 injection raised misgivings about the potential impact to groundwater supplies from the West Kern Water District, which urged that the applicant be required to demonstrate that it would comply with all federal requirements applicable to such wells.
Due to the holidays and the fact that technically SCS had until January 6, 2016, to formally present all of the requested information, CEC set a deadline of January 15, 2016, for response to staff’s recommendation for termination. A public hearing to discuss final actions will be scheduled sometime after that.