As the federal government looks to spend billions of dollars subsidizing new carbon capture projects, supporters of the technology assure that this influx of taxpayer dollars will make a decisive difference.
But a new analysis demonstrates that federal support is not a new idea at all; in fact, as part of the Obama administration’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), $3.4 billion was pledged to support carbon capture (almost $1 billion went unspent). The result? Abandoned projects and abject failures.
The research highlights 11 large scale proposals that were part of a 2010 Department of Energy carbon capture roadmap. Of that total, seven of the projects – which ranged from coal plants in West Virginia and North Dakota to hydrogen and CCS facilities in Illinois and California – never got off the ground.
Two projects that did make it closer to reality amounted to high profile failures. The Kemper coal plant in Mississippi aimed to capture two million metric tons of carbon, and was awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits. Long delayed and over budget, the plant was one of the most high profile ‘clean coal’ projects in the world, attracting significant attention from around the world. The remnants of the capture facility was imploded in 2021. The other failed project was the Petra Nova gas plant in Texas, which was the only operational carbon capture and storage power plant in the country. Facing numerous technical and financial setbacks, the plant was closed in 2020.
The two ‘successful’ carbon capture projects from that round of funding should raise questions about the effectiveness of the technology. The first – Air Products and Chemicals in Texas – captures carbon dioxide process emissions at a facility that turns gas into hydrogen. It captures less than half of its carbon emissions, which are used in enhanced oil recovery. The other is an ethanol plant in Illinois owned by Archer Daniels Midland, which captures less than its permit allows and a rather small fraction of the facility’s overall emissions. Food &Water Watch calculated that the emissions associated with the power required at the facility would roughly equal the emissions that the company is projecting to capture at the facility.
The record of carbon capture failure has not apparently diminished lawmakers’ enthusiasm for throwing more money at the technology. The Inflation Reduction Act greatly expands the 45Q tax credit program that supports existing CCS investments. Apart from that law, the first round of spending — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act – also dedicates billions to promoting CCS.