Is Carbon Capture a Corporate Deception?
Preventing emissions must supersede the industry push to collect CO2, environmental groups say
By Audrey Carleton
When the lobbyists and think tanks promoting the carbon capture industry arrived at the United Nations conference in Glasgow, their teams got straight to work trying to convince corporate and political leaders to invest in a technology that endeavors to prevent carbon dioxide from industrial sources from entering the atmosphere.
Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) involves collecting carbon dioxide emissions straight from factories and coal plants and compressing it into a transportable form. The carbon is then, typically, sent one of two places: deep into the earth to be stored underground or into defunct oil wells, where it’s used as drilling fluid to increase production potential.
(This technology is not to be confused with the broader process known as “carbon dioxide removal,” which includes development of biological carbon sinks such as forests.)
Carbon capture and sequestration facility at Peabody Coal Mine. (Peabody Energy Inc.)
Whereas most strategies to limit climate change focus on reducing emissions by shifting to cleaner, renewable energy sources, carbon capture would allow businesses to have their cake and eat it too. If warming gases are collected before they escape into the atmosphere, the thinking goes, industries can continue to burn fossil fuels without dooming the planet. Industry-aligned groups including the Global Carbon Capture and Sequestration Institute contend that radical technological solutions like these need to be a part of global efforts to limit warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Dozens of progressive environmental organizations have their sights set on making sure CCS is not a central element of combating climate change.
Lambasting carbon capture as a “false solution,” the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for International Environmental Law and 350.org are among the activist groups playing defense against what they see as the fossil fuel industry’s latest deception. If given significant space in global emissions targets, the technology could derail the path toward a quick and just transition from fossil fuels, they say.
“We do not have the time to screw around anymore,” said Jean Su, director of the Energy Justice program at the Center for Biological Diversity, a U.S. nonprofit. “There’s just so much conflict of interest wrapped up in international negotiations, and CCS is just a convenient toy to wave in front of the world to say, ‘We’re doing something,’ when they’re not.”
Where the battle stands
Opponents say investments in CCS would be better spent on scaling up renewables. Su’s organization was one of hundreds in the U.S. and Canada that have co-signed an open letter to federal legislators in both countries expressing concern over carbon capture, calling it “unnecessary, ineffective, exceptionally risky, and at odds with a just energy transition and the principles of environmental justice.”
The letter came as the Biden administration was embracing the technology, following in the footsteps of large environmental nonprofits such as the Environmental Defense Fund and lobbying organizations including the Carbon Capture Coalition—whose members include Shell, NRG Energy and GE Gas Power.
The Melbourne, Australia-based Global Carbon Capture and Sequestration Institute, which also has support from members like Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Equinor and Occidental Petroleum, describes the technology as key to achieving global emissions reduction targets.
Energy companies have long promoted blatant climate disinformation, Su says. Today, she argues, their approach is more covert: The fossil fuel industry no longer denies the realities of the climate crisis and bills itself as part of the solution for it—pushing for technologies that seem green but actually extend the life of polluting power plants.
The critique of carbon capture technology is that it’s costly, risky, and emits more than it sequesters when powered by fossil fuels. A May 2021 study published in peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy looked at 263 carbon capture plants undertaken between 1995 and 2018, finding that the vast majority failed after being terminated or placed on hold for more than three years. The recently decommissioned Petra Nova plant in Thomsons, Texas, for example, was shut down after just a few years in operation and more than $1 billion in investment because of chronic mechanical problems and its inability to meet emissions reduction targets.
CCS’s dubious efficacy is also matched by evidence that the technology could actually be harming the planet.
A 2019 study in the International Journal of Risk Assessment and Management strove to identify the full range of risks that come with CCS deployment: CO2 brine leakage from underground wells, pipeline explosions, air pollution around infrastructure and a dearth of storage sites top the list. Meanwhile, a 2020 literature review in the journal Biophysical Economics and Sustainability estimated that CCS, combined with enhanced oil recovery, in which sequestered carbon is used as oil drilling fluid, results in positive net emissions—a consequence of obtaining, transporting and processing the fossil fuels required to keep plants running and move captured CO2 to storage and drill sites.
The idea of using CCS infrastructure to sequester enough carbon to meet the goals laid out in the Paris Accord is hugely problematic, said Mahir Ilgaz, interim global campaign manager at 350.org, a U.S. nonprofit that is part of an international movement opposed to any new fossil fuel projects.
“Just to deploy that much CCS, you would need incredible amounts of energy, and you’re going to have to get it from somewhere,” said Ilgaz. “I’m assuming you will want to get that from green sources, and even deploying that much green energy, renewable energy is going to be an issue. There is no alternative to mitigation.”
A limited case for CCS?
Not all experts are entirely ready to give up on carbon capture.
Greg Nemet, co-author of the Energy Policy study and professor of energy policy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs, believes that despite past failures, CCS projects could improve with further public investment. Should public demand for sequestered carbon grow high enough to keep the cost of building this infrastructure relatively low, it could be a useful addition to the array of tools guiding emissions reduction goals, he said.
His paper describes the technology as being trapped in a “negative feedback loop” that is careening exponentially toward higher and higher risk. Low investment makes it harder for CCS to succeed, while failed projects hurt its public perception, making it harder for companies and governments to justify further public acceptance.
“It’s got a lot of things against it,” Nemet said of CCS. “Some failed projects in the past, some skepticism that this is just greenwashing. And so it has to get past those, plus as a technology that’s not proven, that the first few plants may not work. So getting to that positive feedback mechanism is the real challenge.”
Wind and solar power—which both faced initial public skepticism, Nemet noted—eventually escaped this feedback loop. With so little time left to cap emissions, though, opponents of carbon capture question whether it’s worth making the investment needed to change its trajectory or better to just call it quits on a faulty premise.
Even Iceland-based Orca—the world’s largest facility for direct air capture, a type of carbon capture that sucks emissions directly from the atmosphere—is anticipated to have a minuscule impact on the environment compared to the level of investment required to get it going. After coming online in September, the plant is anticipated to capture 1 percent of the annual emissions of a single coal-fired power plant, the same amount of greenhouse gas emitted by around 870 cars each year (there are an estimated 1 to 2 billion cars on the road worldwide today.) The plant cost between $10 million and $15 million to build, Bloomberg News reported.
Nemet believes that the role for carbon capture should be small and targeted primarily at countries that are still highly reliant on coal.
The Center for International Environmental Law and others reject that premise entirely. The organization recently penned a report that called CCS a “myth,” laying out how a rapid scale-up of more affordable clean solutions like wind and solar can help limit warming to the degree necessary to curb the climate crisis.
The 28 carbon capture facilities currently operating globally have the capacity to capture just 0.1 percent of fossil fuel emissions, the report said, with 81 percent of this capacity used for oil drilling. Citing a 2020 roadmap to 1.5 degrees of warming by nonprofit network Foundations 20, the report argues that limiting global heating is possible by moving the transportation, industry, and building sectors to 100% clean, renewable energy and enhancing natural sequestration through improved land management.
Carbon capture is an expensive distraction from this course of action, said Carroll Muffett, the law center’s CEO and president.
“Renewable energy is increasingly out-competing existing not only coal plants but natural gas plants,” Muffett said. “Carbon capture and storage technologies only make those economics worse.”