Carbon Capture & Storage Explained: The New Fossil Fuel Frontier

Carbon capture tech has gotten a lot of buzz recently. Here’s how it works — and what the industry and its hacks won’t tell you.

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Climate and Energy

by Mia DiFelice

We’re running out of time to fight the consequences of our fossil fuel dependence. Everyday, we face headlines on raging wildfires, parching droughts, devastating hurricanes and other climate disasters. Experts have made it clear: we should have plugged carbon emissions yesterday. 

But what if we could only take emissions out of the fossil fuel equation?

That’s the fantasy that industry leaders and many politicians are pushing above anything else. But it’s just another scam that will boost profits and double down on polluting industry, with disastrous consequences for communities already sickened by air and water toxins from dirty energy power plants.

This fantasy goes by the name of carbon capture and storage. It refers to technologies designed to trap and remove carbon emissions from smokestacks or the atmosphere itself. And it’s gotten a lot of buzz lately. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated billions of dollars to develop and deploy carbon capture. The Inflation Reduction Act will send billions more. 

But carbon capture isn’t a solution to climate change. In fact, it will entrench and grow the pollution that has already plagued frontline communities for decades. 

Here’s how it works, and what the industry and its hacks won’t tell you.

Carbon Capture Technology is Dangerous, Expensive — And it Just Doesn’t Work

The industry claims that carbon capture technology stores carbon deep underground, forever. But corporations don’t have a good track record when it comes to pumping stuff underground. 

Oil and gas companies routinely inject drilling wastewater deep into the earth, and even wells deemed safe at the outset have leaked. Pumping wastewater underground has contaminated well water and even disrupted local geology, causing earthquakes.

Even if this end-use were foolproof, it’s not the one the carbon capture facilities actually use. In fact, 95% of carbon currently captured is used for enhanced oil recovery. That means the carbon is injected into old oil and gas wells to push out every last drop — contributing to our vicious cycle of fossil fuel dependence. 

Moreover, carbon capture is incredibly energy-intensive. That, combined with the emissions of the fossil fuels they perpetuate, has meant that U.S. carbon capture projects have actually led to a net increase in emissions, not a decrease.

And we are paying a lot for these emissions. Failed carbon capture projects have cost us billions in taxpayer dollars and will cost us billions more. We are paying through the nose for projects that don’t work, yet allow coal and other dirty energies to persist.

Carbon Capture is a Multi-Purpose Boondoggle

This climate scam will be used to greenwash a variety of dirty energy sources — for example, ethanol. Industry has touted ethanol made from growing corn as a “renewable” fuel source. But corn ethanol is actually an estimated 24% more emissions-intensive than gasoline. It also causes a host of other problems, from higher corn prices to entrenching industrial agriculture practices. 

Carbon capture stands to entrench the corn ethanol industry by green-washing it even more. The rush to get CCS technology into ethanol has already begun. Thousands of miles of pipelines planned for Iowa would transport CO2 from ethanol and fertilizer facilities to injection sites.

There’s hardly a dirty energy that carbon capture doesn’t prop up. The fossil fuel industry plans to use it to revive dying coal and fracked gas plants. If allowed, they’ll attach it to hydrogen power generation derived from fracked gas.

Across the dirty energy sector, corporations plan to use carbon capture as a cover to continue emitting, polluting and threatening our health and safety. 

Carbon Capture Entrenches Dangerous Industry in Vulnerable Communities

If industry execs get their way, carbon capture will subject frontline communities to more pollution. We already know that children playing near fossil fuel power plants are at greater risk for asthma and other respiratory illnesses. We know that fracking operations leak toxic chemicals into our air and water

Carbon capture would also require a huge infrastructure buildout with devastating consequences for those nearby. 

For example, carbon pipelines would turn a hefty profit for the same pipeline companies that have already wreaked havoc with oil and gas lines. From past experience, we can expect them to disrupt fragile ecosystems and threaten vulnerable communities. 

Carbon pipelines carry odorless, colorless CO2 that can displace oxygen and suffocate people to death. In 2020, a carbon pipeline ruptured in Satartia, Mississippi. The CO2 stopped emergency vehicles in their tracks, as it displaced the oxygen needed for fuel combustion. It sent 49 people to the hospital, and many victims still experienced symptoms months later.

We’ve already seen dangerous oil and gas pipelines leak, rupture and pollute. A carbon capture future means a future with even more deadly illnesses and accidents.  

We Won’t Let The Fossil Fuel Industry Get Away With Its Latest Scam

Compared to a full green energy transition, carbon capture doesn’t add up. We know renewables are proven, safer and cheaper. Unlike carbon capture, we don’t need more demonstration projects or research and development to see if renewables actually work.

Fossil fuel corporations are waving the illusion of carbon capture in our faces, distracting us from the energy transition we know we need. If allowed to continue, they’ll use it to double down on dirty energy, saddling the rest of us with more pollution and even more emissions. And there isn’t a region of this country CCS won’t touch. Projects threaten states across the country, from California to New Mexico to Ohio

With the flood of public funds rushing into the carbon capture industry, it’s more important than ever to take a stand against these projects. In the coming months, Food & Water Watch will be keeping you up to date with new proposals and new scams. 

When the fracking boom hit, we quickly recognized that this new “bridge fuel” would be a bridge to nowhere. That it would harm communities and fail to fight climate change. Now, we see the fossil fuel industry playing the same game with carbon capture. We can’t and we won’t let them stall us on real climate action.

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