Fossil Fuel Industry Pitches Carbon Capture As Climate Cure. But Is It?

September 8, 2021

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The challenges of carbon capture and storage are less of technology and more of economics, scale, whole-system effects, capitalization and sustainability. Above, factory stacks at the Westrock packaging plant in Tacoma, Wash. Photo: David Seibold, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Backgrounder: Fossil Fuel Industry Pitches Carbon Capture As Climate Cure. But Is It?

By Joseph A. Davis

The oil industry has a bridge it wants to sell you. It’s called carbon capture and storage, or CCS. 

It’s being billed as a technological miracle cure for climate change. Except it isn’t. But it will cost you just the same. Just sign here.

The “miracle” of CCS is that it promises to allow the fossil fuel industry to continue producing climate-warming carbon dioxide for a profit — while delaying the replacement of dirty fuels with clean, green, renewable technologies. And thus delaying a solution to climate change.

CCS technologies are unproven (in fact they have a record of failure at scale), while renewable technologies (most often wind and photovoltaic solar) are proven, already succeeding and much of the time are less costly than fossil fuels.


Infrastructure legislation would offer subsidies

Actually, the oil industry has already sold CCS to Congress. 

The bipartisan infrastructure bill, HR 3684, passed Aug. 10 by the Senate, included at least $6 billion to subsidize carbon capture technology. This bill, at these levels, could soon pass the House if complex politics can be worked out.

But the amount of spending the bipartisan infrastructure bill directs toward climate change is harder to count. It may be in the tens of billions. 

But a lot of it is really to deal with the effects of climate change (may require subscription), as if they were inevitable (such as hardening highways against floods) — rather than preventing climate change by doing things like reducing emissions.

Some, like money to fund electric vehicle charging stations, could certainly be counted as prevention (although its effectiveness depends on green-powering the grid).

In contrast to CCS, renewable technologies like the solar farm above in Campbell County, Va., are proven and often less costly than fossil fuels. Photo: Kipp Teague, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

In beltway lingo, the code words for treating climate change as inevitable are adaptation or resilience. Actually preventing climate change is something different.

Since we have already raised the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and committed the planet to some warming, the code word for prevention is mitigation — i.e., making the future temperature increase less.

Climate activists, by most counts, think a lot more mitigation is needed. They see some of it, potentially, in the outline of the reconciliation bill the Senate passed Aug. 11.

It is hard to say for sure just what is in the resolution, because details must be worked out in a Byzantine political process. But it is understood to include mitigation measures like a “clean energy standard” that would force reduction of emissions, and tax breaks and financial incentives for green energy.

The outcome remains uncertain, but Congressional leaders have set September as crunch time for resolving things.


A fairly mature technology

Carbon capture technology is not a new thing. Submarines in World War II, for instance, used it to keep the air breathable when submerged.

Today, there are several technologies used to remove carbon dioxide from the air, such as in space capsules, so humans can keep breathing. Even more technologies are being tried in hopes they will scale up successfully (and affordably) to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Another thing: The oil industry has been injecting carbon dioxide into geological formations for decades. Since the 1970s. With federal aid.

It is not a developing technology, but a fairly mature one. The industry’s old name for it was “enhanced oil recovery.” When wells are depleted and production starts waning, the pressure of injected gas (CO2 is not the only one) can stimulate the flow of more oil for recovery. That means profitable production.

It is not rocket science. It is economics. Industry liked it. And when the United States was worried about having enough oil, back during the “energy crisis,” the federal government gladly supported it.

When CO2 is injected for enhanced oil recovery, it must be noted, there is no guarantee it will stay underground, or be “sequestered” (which is necessary if it is to help reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere).

In any case, the idea that CCS is an unproven, cutting-edge, out-there technology that only requires more research dollars to prove its practicality deserves some skepticism.


The problem is energy inputs

Of course, it is going to be more cost-effective to collect CO2 from a source where it is already more concentrated — such as the stack of a power plant. But that raises new technical challenges. Flue gases are hot, corrosive and polluted.

Today, the trending buzzword is “direct air capture,” or DAC, which means capturing CO2 directly from diluted ambient air, where it exists at a concentration of about 415 ppm, or about 0.04 percent.

A Swiss start-up, Climeworks, is among those promoting DAC with a pilot, which uses a familiar adsorption-desorption technology. But the cost per ton of CO2 removed is still commercially impractical.


Even this basic, proven technology requires

energy inputs — and that’s the problem when much

energy is still coming from climate-unfriendly sources.


Even this basic, proven technology requires energy inputs — and that’s the problem when much energy is still coming from climate-unfriendly sources.

All this may remind us that the problem isn’t really a technological one amenable to research, but one of economics, scale, whole-system effects, capitalization and sustainability.


Oil and gas industry as proponents

It may come as no surprise then that the earliest and strongest proponents of CCS are in the fossil fuel industry, especially oil.

It is worth taking a minute to recall the coal, oil, gas and utility industries’ history of opposing action on climate change.

We could point back to the Global Climate Coalition, backed by fossil fuel industries beginning in 1989 as one of the first organized climate denial groups. It fell apart in a few years because its hard-core approach proved to be bad PR for industry.

The many climate denial campaigns since have been a bit more subtle, more sugarcoated and often clandestine. An example is a network of climate denial think tanks and compliant scientists funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. Not only were their companies heavily invested in fossil fuels, but their anti-regulatory ideology had a deep antagonism to federal climate action.

In 2015, a team at Inside Climate News chronicled how Exxon’s own research made it aware of the fossil fuel contribution to climate change, even as its executives eventually decided to undermine climate science and lobby against climate action.

Today, the TV ads from the American Petroleum Institute are even softer, sunnier and more cheerful about the chances for addressing climate change (just not through federal regulation). And, of course, carbon capture is viewed with wonder and lyricism.

As early as 2000, Shell, ConocoPhillips and other oil companies had formed the CO2 Capture Project. Other fans of CCS include Aramco, the Saudi-based oil behemoth.

Then there is the 1PointFive group (you have to dig down to discover that it is a creature of Occidental Petroleum). Exxon’s carbon capture fan club is called Energy Factor. API has a thing called Energy for Progress. A broader pro-CCS front, the Carbon Capture Coalition, includes not just oil, but coal, labor and other industry groups. And so it goes.


Environmental groups and some environmental media

have done a serious job of laying out the conflicts

and contradictions in the CCS bandwagon.


Unsurprisingly, environmental groups and some environmental media have done a serious job of laying out the conflicts and contradictions in the CCS bandwagon. Greenpeace USA did an extensive report on “how a false climate solution bolsters big oil.”

In July 2021, as Congress was cogitating infrastructure and climate, a coalition of some 500 environmental groups released a letter (amplified by full-page ads) opposing CCS as a “dangerous distraction” rather than a climate solution.


Doing the math for climate

The truth at this point is that most of the effective mitigation solutions to climate change are pretty well known, technologically developed, economically available and relatively easy to implement. No research billions needed.

The economics are pretty clear. Over the last decade or two, the costs of solar photovoltaic and wind turbine energy have dropped dramatically — to the point where they out-compete coal and often even natural gas.

As a result, electric utilities are abandoning coal (and in some cases gas), and switching to renewables largely without burdensome and unnecessary government regulations. It’s the magic of the marketplace — a thing which oddly sometimes scares U.S. industry.

Moreover, advances in vehicle-scale and utility-scale battery technology in recent years have been impressive. These are necessary to apply green energy to vehicles (now the biggest source of CO2), and to time-shift wind and solar megawatts to periods when consumer demands want them.

This “energy transition” has, admittedly, been sped up by federal R&D support and tax incentives (so spotty and unpredictable that their help is diminished). But it’s happening. There are more incentives expected for renewables in the infrastructure and reconciliation bills. Also for CCS.


The politics of pipeline funding

A big chunk of the CCS funding is for a network of pipelines and hubs to deliver the yet-nonexistent and possibly hypothetical CO2 to eager buyers. Possibly oil companies.

Oh, and once the pipelines are built, they could conceivably be used to transport something else (possibly natural gas or even petroleum). And even pipelines that carry CO2 can cause environmental harm if they fail.

But, let’s face it, including CCS in the legislation builds support among oil and gas state members of Congress, whether Republican or Democrat. The Biden administration has supported the CCS provisions currently believed to be in the infrastructure and reconciliation package.

Some of the arguments for CCS rely on “doomism” — the belief that stopping the increase of atmospheric greenhouse gases is impossible, and that we will stop trying. That viewpoint assumes that atmospheric carbon will inevitably rise above the Paris Agreement goals and that all that will be left is to remove the carbon with technology.

Never mind that chimneys may be spewing even more CO2 into the atmosphere as the CCS machines are taking some fraction of it out.


Counterproductive math?

One of the key points to note when doing the math is that it takes energy to capture carbon, no matter what the technology or intercepted emission. That seems counterproductive when the carbon is captured from the stack of an electric generating plant.

In some cases, the CCS is expected to be powered by the plant itself. In some cases not. In some cases, only part of the carbon is captured.

When evaluating CCS projects, it is crucial to know where the capture process energy comes from, and whether this is factored into the net effect of the project. That extra energy may be from fossil fuels. Which is the point.

The other key part of the CCS math equation is to quantify the amount of CO2 (or methane, for that matter) released by the combustion of the oil produced via enhanced oil recovery.

In many CCS projects, the motivating purpose is to produce and sell larger amounts of crude oil. Many of the enthusiastic arm-waving analyses of CCS just don’t try to account for this oil combustion. But a proper accounting, worthy of language like “net-zero,” would do so meticulously over the life of the project.


But finally, CCS must pass a

simpler math test. Namely, cost.


But finally, CCS must pass a simpler math test. Namely, cost. Does it cost more to remove a ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via CCS than it does to prevent its emission in the first place by using renewable energy? This can be stated as cost per ton of carbon.

Note to legislators: You will not see this analysis stated in any simple or clear way. You might ask for it before you vote.


Track record of failure, waste

A shrewd banker, pondering whether to spend billions to fund a CCS project, might ask about the technology’s track record. When the solar cell firm Solyndra went kaput in 2011, Republicans opposed to renewable energy made a gimlet-eyed fuss.

It is worth remembering that in the annals of U.S. climate denial one of the earliest fantasies was “clean coal”. And that one of the biggest early CCS projects was the Petra Nova coal power plant near Houston, Texas. Its purpose was to put lipstick on a … well, a 240-megawatt coal electric generating plant.

After three-and-a-half years of operation, the plant was mothballed. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis noted, “It has been cited frequently by carbon capture promoters as a shining model of success that could be replicated widely to keep coal-fired plants online.”

It was the opposite. Although privately owned, the plant was subsidized by a $195 million Energy Department grant. It wasn’t capturing all the CO2 it was supposed to. The ostensible reason for its demise was low oil prices — but oil has since risen to $70 or more, and Petra Nova hasn’t reopened. It was the biggest, and only, operating CCS plant in the United States.

Petra Nova illustrated one of the Achilles heels of CCS: It takes energy to capture carbon. It took a whole separate gas power plant to power the CCS at Petra Nova.

Another example was the Kemper plant in Mississippi, which was being built by the Southern Company. It was three years behind schedule and $4 billion over budget when the company finally stopped work on it in September 2016.

It, too, was subsidized by federal taxpayers: a $270 million grant from the Energy Department, plus $133 million in tax breaks from the IRS. Ian Urbina did a really good article (may require subscription) on it for the New York Times, exposing the boondoggle.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews Twitter feed. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 31. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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