19 Jun 2014

Turning "Black Gold" to Green

Pumping captured CO2 into old oil fields may yield
a carbon neutral solution to greenhouse gasses.
Re: Michael Skelly (MBA 1991); Joseph Lassiter; William Sahlman
by Ralph Ranalli


Capturing industrial carbon dioxide and pumping it back underground to help extract energy from old, unproductive oil fields seems like a plan that might be good in theory but is probably too complicated to pull off in the real world. Just don't tell that to Justin Dawe (MBA 2007).

"We've purchased two oil fields, have contracts to manage as much CO2 as is produced by a small city, and we have the financial backing to finish the job," Dawe says. "That's about as tangible as it gets."

Dawe is the president and cofounder of Berkeley, California-based C12 Energy, which plans to put a green spin on a common extraction method known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).

C12 Energy owns two "mature" oil fields in North Dakota and Kansas. Fields like these still hold oil, even after conventional drillers pull out—often more than 35 percent of the field's original reserves. EOR has been used for decades and accounts for roughly 5 percent of domestic US oil production. However, it's not particularly environmentally friendly: EOR companies mostly tap naturally occurring fields of CO2, transport the gas to the mature oil fields, and then inject it into the ground to force out the remaining oil, which, when burned, releases more CO2 (a key greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.

C12 Energy's North Dakota project will instead capture industrial CO2 from a big chemical plant located about 50 miles away and then pump it to the mature field through an underground pipeline. The result is that, when the oil is burned, it will release roughly the same amount of CO2 as was pumped into the oil field. Dawe explains that making EOR essentially carbon-neutral is a big step forward. "I describe it as 'buy one, get one free,' since you can now either think of the industrial process or the oil as being carbon neutral," he says.

The entire process is a major technological undertaking—one Dawe says he probably wouldn't be involved with if he and C12 Energy cofounder Kurt Zenz House hadn't been introduced to each other by a Harvard Business School professor.

"Kurt and I got together in a course called Commercializing Science and Technology [taught by] Lee Fleming," Dawe says. "The idea behind the course was to bring together business students and graduate students from other parts of the University. It was a wonderfully creative environment."

At the time, House was working on a geosciences doctorate at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and on a dissertation entitled "On the Physics and Chemistry of Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage in Terrestrial and Marine Environments." Dawe was the co-president of the HBS Energy Club and had spent his MBA summer interning at GE Energy.

Dawe says he loved the idea of boosting domestic energy production while recycling existing sources of CO2, because he had come to HBS looking to merge his interests in business, energy, and the environment. The son of a commercial fisherman, Dawe grew up in Hawaii, on a rural part of the Big Island. His family later moved to California and Oregon, and the pull of environmentalism was always strong as he was growing up. He graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering from Stanford in 1998, but found environmental jobs scarce. So he went to work as a high-tech engineer and project manager in Silicon Valley for a few years before his green impulse kicked in again.

In 2001, California was in the middle of a full-blown energy crisis, complete with 800 percent wholesale price spikes and rolling blackouts, so Dawe volunteered to work on two ballot initiatives in San Francisco calling for using city investments in energy efficiency to generate savings that would be reinvested in solar power. Inspired by their success, Dawe took an 80 percent pay cut and moved to Colorado to work on green-power initiatives there. In 2004, voters made Colorado the first state to adopt a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) via a vote of the public. The RPS requires utilities to produce a specific percentage of power from renewable sources, and because of the ballot measure's popularity and success, the legislature subsequently increased the RPS's goals.

Through his political work, Dawe says he developed a fascination with market transformation—how to change a market, create demand, decrease prices, and increase industry's capabilities.

"It was the mindset I took to HBS," he says. "In each of my classes, I thought, How does what we are doing relate to how you change a market? And it turns out it's tough—particularly a multi-billion-dollar market."

Professors like Joseph Lassiter and William Sahlman, and their lessons about entrepreneurial finance and the diffusion of innovations, encouraged Dawe to think big —and even, as he says, "have the occasional delusion of grandeur."

"Ambition is necessary in order to make any kind of meaningful change; and, fortunately, the process inevitably beats you up enough to keep you humble," Dawe says. "The nice thing about environmentally focused markets is that they tend to be huge. If you can find a niche in the energy industry, it will be big enough to support a company, and then you see where you can grow from there."

After graduation, Dawe worked as a project manager in Maine for Horizon Wind Energy, led by fellow HBS grad Michael Skelly (MBA 1991), for just over a year before launching C12. His goal for the company is to change the game—and some minds—when it comes to fossil fuels and the future.

"We can create an industry and put some new options on the table," he says. "My hope is that we can build some extremely profitable carbon-management EOR projects and make it clear to industry, the environmental community, and regulators that there's a very bright future for significantly lower-carbon fossil fuels."

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2007, Section J

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