It’s no secret that we need a radical change in the way we produce energy. But decision makers are being seduced by ‘fixes’ promoted by the fossil fuel industry in a blatant attempt to keep us locked into their failing model The most prominent one is something called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which aims to get rid of carbon at the source, or to even remove it from the atmosphere.
If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. But there’s no mystery why carbon capture is so popular with the dirty energy giants: They can keep doing business as usual, while pretending to do something meaningful in the fight against climate change.
What is carbon capture and does it actually work?
CCS describes a set of technologies for fossil fuel companies to capture carbon dioxide either at the smokestack or in the atmosphere, transport the CO2 in pipelines and inject it underground.
Under every scenario, though, CCS faces insurmountable technical, financial and environmental barriers.
Despite optimistic projections and extensive government support over the past two decades, CCS projects remain obscenely expensive. Most CCS projects have been shelved after delays and cost blowouts, and the only U.S. CCS-equipped power plant ever completed cost several times what it would have cost to simply build comparable renewable energy capacity.
There is a lot of green rhetoric about CCS plants, but they are in fact really bad for the climate, because they have to burn more fuel to power the equipment to capture carbon in the first place. Food & Water Watch found that after accounting for extensive methane emissions from fuel production, CCS can only reduce a fraction of the emissions from electricity generation. And the increased fuel use would worsen the deeply unjust air pollution and burdens that fall mostly on vulnerable communities.
“Negative Emissions” Technologies Promise Pie In The Sky But Don’t Deliver
Beyond the notion of CCS-equipped power plants, there are “negative emissions” technologies which promise to remove atmospheric carbon in the future. Two common methods proposed use CCS with bioenergy, or promise to directly capture carbon from the atmosphere.
Biomass and biofuel facilities grow crops and burn them for fuel. When equipped with carbon capture, they are supposedly ‘carbon negative’ because carbon is sequestered in the growing of crops or trees. But this shady carbon math doesn’t factor in the energy-heavy agricultural inputs and land use trade-offs; heavy use of biofuels could require up to 80 percent of what’s currently used as cropland, which could also threaten food security.
The “Direct Air Capture” (DAC) approach uses large fans to capture airborne CO2 from the atmosphere. Industry enthusiasts call this the ultimate ‘everyone wins’ scenario. Sounds promising, right? Except it doesn’t work in the real world. DAC is incredibly energy intensive and expensive, in part because CO2 is only a small portion of ambient air. And if the technology is powered with natural gas or coal, DAC could actually capture less CO2 than it creates.
What happens to the carbon after you capture it in a CCS system?
The problems get worse once you start trying to do something with the carbon you capture. It must be stored underground for centuries, a feat that has obviously not been proven doable. Most damningly, storage would depend on inherently leaky infrastructure and dangerous practices like pipelines, underground gas storage and high-pressure injection.
To dodge these problems, oil companies spend millions to hype "cool" potential uses for carbon capture like vodka making. But the only seemingly real path for the industry is something called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), a process to inject captured carbon into mature, low-pressure oil reservoirs to drive remaining oil to the surface.
In other words, they’d be using the carbon to extract more fossil fuels.
When EOR-produced oil is combusted it (obviously) increases carbon emissions, which defeats the whole point of storing it in the first place.
The fossil fuel industry loves CCS, and some political leaders are pushing it too
Fossil fuel companies are desperately pushing for CCS, which is gaining buzz as a supposed win-win cure-all. Utilities and corporate interests embrace CCS because it would allow them to keep their profitable assets and business strategy intact, while allaying climate concerns — even wrongly.
In reality, CCS would lead fossil fueled power plants to burn more fuel. The climate consequences of producing this fuel would be disastrous.
Unfortunately, there are powerful incentives being created to promote CCS.The Energy Department recently announced that it would be providing $22 million for research “to achieve ‘breakthroughs’ in technology to capture carbon dioxide directly from that air.”
And even though there are still no indications that carbon capture is effective, many federal lawmakers still highlight it as a key part of their climate plans.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Pennsylvania are even pushing to include carbon capture plants as a form of renewable energy, while investors are trying to use the promise of CCS to save a large coal plant in New Mexico that might (and should) close due to the state’s climate regulations.
There is no future for the toxic fossil fuel industry, with or without CCS. Carbon emissions are the industry’s downfall, and there is no magic cure for that. Instead of bailouts or gimmicky technology that doesn’t deliver, we must have public control of the oil and gas industries. That’s the ticket to ensure a stable pathway and just transition away from fossil fuels and towards real clean energy.
Fight like you live here.