Why Carbon Storage Is a Bad Idea

Published Sep 6, 2023


Climate and Energy

Big Oil wants us to bet that it can curb climate change by burying carbon underground. Here’s why we shouldn’t.

Big Oil wants us to bet that it can curb climate change by burying carbon underground. Here’s why we shouldn’t.

Our National Forests are home to treasured natural wonders and a diversity of plants and animals. But this June, the National Forest Service announced plans to allow companies to bury their carbon pollution under these forests.

The rule, if passed, would let private companies take out their trash on public land — and build all the dangerous pipelines, injection wells, and roads required to do so. 

Supporters of carbon capture and storage claim this is for the good of the climate. They’re selling the idea that polluters can capture their carbon emissions and store them deep underground, preventing them from warming the planet. 

But carbon capture is a scam. The technology has devoured public funds, only to release more emissions than it’s removed. Moreover, carbon “storage” methods are unproven and unpredictable. There’s no guarantee that all that carbon will stay put — plus the process creates all kinds of harms and risks. 

Carbon Storage Shakes Hands With Oil & Gas Drilling

For something touted as a “climate solution,” carbon storage sure bears a lot of resemblance to the fossil fuel industry. For one, many fossil fuel giants are driving carbon capture projects as a bet to extend the life of their industry. 

Carbon capture and storage is already helping them squeeze every last cent of profits from their assets. Currently, nearly all of the carbon captured in the United States is injected into wells to push the dregs of oil to the surface. 

Alternatively, geological carbon storage calls for tunneling deep into the earth — more than a mile — to inject CO2 into a storage site. There, CO2 may fill in the pores of the rock, like water in a sponge. In some sites, the CO2 mixes with saltwater in aquifers or chemically reacts with the minerals in unpredictable ways.

This process is related to fracking’s practice of wastewater injection, in which frackers “dispose” of wastewater by pumping it back underground. Some carbon capture projects include wastewater injection if companies want to remove underground water to make room for CO2 or relieve pressure and then inject it elsewhere.

Additionally, both CO2 and wastewater injection involve pumping high volumes into the earth, creating similar problems and risks; for instance, earthquakes. Already, we’ve seen earthquakes at CO2 injection sites almost strong enough to damage buildings. 

Conversely, earthquakes can damage wells or crack the rock layers meant to seal CO2 into the well. This could cause CO2 to leak back into the atmosphere or even contaminate nearby groundwater or soil.

Carbon Probably Won’t Stay in the Ground

The promise of carbon capture and storage is that it should permanently keep CO2 out of the atmosphere and prevent more climate change. But permanence is far from guaranteed.

Earthquakes aside, carbon storage is very unpredictable. Shoving CO2 underground creates a lot of pressure. It can also cause chemical reactions with the minerals underground. As a result, many storage sites have seen the surrounding geology do things scientists were never expecting, jeopardizing the projects.

We don’t have the tools to predict what will happen to wells over time — or even to ensure that the carbon is staying put. CO2 imaging technology is just getting off the ground.

And that’s just covering the wells. We also have to worry about leaks in the pipelines transporting CO2 from where it’s first captured to the injection sites and around the injection sites themselves.

The pressure created by injection alone can lead to fractures, deformations in the all-important sealing layer, or chemical reactions that make the sealing layer leaky. 

Since many carbon storage sites are in or around old oil and gas wells, these wells create all sorts of risks for leaks. Any old, unsealed, or poorly sealed well is essentially a pipeline to the surface. Even worse, researchers have found that CO2 can slowly escape along well-lining and corrode well casings and seals.

Carbon Storage Risks Catastrophic Accidents

On top of the risks of slower or smaller leaks, carbon storage also risks huge releases of CO2 in blowouts or during injection.  

These leaks can be deadly, as compressed CO2 can suffocate people. In 1986, a lake in Cameroon released a massive bubble of CO2 that formed from volcanic activity. That CO2 spread in a cloud that killed nearly 1,800 people, some more than 15 miles away. A pipeline leak in Satartia, Mississippi, hospitalized almost 50 residents in 2020.

Additionally, captured CO2 often isn’t just CO2. It can have dangerous impurities, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and mercury. That’s not just bad news for public health in case of a rupture — these impurities are also corrosive, increasing the odds of a leak in the first place. (Not to mention, removing them adds to carbon capture’s already massive energy costs.)

Boosters would tell you that these are all problems that can be solved — “Just look at how far we’ve come with methane leaks!”

Except they haven’t actually come far. Producing natural gas still leaks disturbing amounts of methane. And we haven’t improved much on the storage front, either — just look to the Aliso Canyon blowout, which spewed unconscionable amounts of methane from the storage facility for months in 2016.

Our Policies Are Propping Up a Dangerous Boondoggle

Despite all these risks and unknowns, carbon capture and storage is getting a lot of political support. As a result, the federal government has presented public resources on a platter to Big Oil. Notably, 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act will dole out billions in taxpayer funds to carbon capture. 

We see this transfer of public resources to private polluters in the National Forest Service’s proposal, too. Our government should be protecting and preserving these public lands; lands that belong to everybody. Instead, they’ve proposed letting companies dump their waste there.

Tell the U.S. Forest Service: No carbon waste dumping!

At the same time, the industry is aiming to get off the hook for long-term liability. Carbon storage would require decades and even hundreds of years of monitoring to ensure health and safety and that the carbon actually stays in the ground.

But several states either passed or are considering laws that saddle the government — i.e., the public — with the responsibility after just a few years. This would again have taxpayers funding the clean-up for Big Oil’s messes. And these policies are, of course, backed by Big Oil, so the industry can worm its way out of accountability yet again.

Carbon Storage Is Not a Climate Fix

Carbon storage is riddled with complications and dangers that threaten public health and safety. It also can’t keep its core promise: to permanently store carbon pollution and slow down climate change.

So why would we spend billions of dollars to drill risky wells, move dangerous CO2 long distances, and monitor for inevitable CO2 leaks? Because Big Oil wants it that way. 

Carbon capture allows oil and gas companies to continue profiting off their polluting operations, with a new, bogus “green” badge and an extra helping of public resources.

This is all just a dodgy distraction from the real solutions we need to turn the tide on climate change. Instead of investing in carbon capture and storage, our government needs to be supporting — and only supporting — renewable energy, battery storage, and energy efficiency.

Check out our resource hub on carbon capture and learn how you can help us stop proposed projects nationwide.

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