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What’s the deal with carbon capture and storage? » Yale Climate Connections

Is carbon capture and storage a needed tool to get us to the clean energy future or a costly distraction that will delay the fight against climate change? That massive debate between environmental groups, industry groups, and government officials has heated up since the passage of the Democrat’s Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, in 2022, featuring an expansion of tax credits for the technology. 

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, seeks to limit carbon pollution from the industrial sector with technology that uses filtering equipment to capture carbon before release. 

“The state of carbon capture is sort of on a cusp,” said Basav Sen, director of the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “Proponents are gearing up for a massive expansion of the industry, but opponents see this as the moment to stop it for good.” 

Does CCS work? Your answer often depends on your definition of success. Proponents believe it will prevent carbon from entering the atmosphere, cutting emissions from fossil fuel operations and energy-intensive industries such as cement and steel that are hard to electrify. Opponents say carbon capture is an overhyped and ineffective distraction that often fails to meet its targets and will delay the phaseout of fossil fuels while depleting groundwater supplies. They say money spent on the technology could be better spent on renewable energy, conservation, and other methods of cutting emissions that are more effective, if less profitable for some big corporations.

Bridget Callaghan, manager at the Carbon Action Alliance, an initiative of the nonprofit Great Plains Institute, says that “carbon capture is proven and is ready to be deployed.” She noted that the U.S. oil and gas industry has more than 50 years of experience capturing, transporting, and storing carbon through geologic storage for a process known as enhanced oil recovery. This process has historically been used to save money during oil extraction. By capturing and reusing emissions, pressurized gas is used to extract crude oil that otherwise couldn’t be reached.

“This is for use in the power sector for natural gas and ethanol, but we’re seeing a huge shift where the primary use of this technology is going towards climate projects,” Callaghan said. 

A troubled track record

Reuters has reported that about 80 CCS projects have been announced in the U.S. A study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that many deployed CCS projects are capturing much lower percentages of carbon than developers had promised. Of 13 projects studied — approximately 55% of global CCS operations — seven underperformed and two failed.

Sen and Kendall Dix, the national policy director at Taproot Earth, a nonprofit focused on climate justice, pointed to several underperforming systems that have been notorious with opponents. The Gorgon Project, a liquefied natural gas terminal in Western Australia spearheaded by oil giant Chevron, has consistently failed to deliver the capture rates that were promised to the Australian government.

Sen noted that in the power generation sector, few large-scale power plants worldwide are using carbon capture technology; most facilities are being built on smaller plants. One of the largest, located in Alberta, Canada, and run by Shell, has consistently missed its carbon capture targets by large percentages. A 2022 investigation found that the plant, which had been touted as a “thriving example” of CCS, has only captured about 48% of its emissions — approximately 5 million tons of carbon — compared to a promised 90% capture rate.

In the U.S., the Petra Nova facility located in Thompsons, Texas, is one of the world’s only two active CCS retrofits to a commercial power plant. This coal-fired power plant has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance to get off the ground over the last decade, with a promise to capture approximately 90% of the carbon emissions from the power plant. According to EPA data from 2017-2019, the facility has only captured about 7% of the approximately 15 million tons of carbon emitted each year.

“And then after operating for a few years, and after a massive federal subsidy, the system just failed and they closed down,” Sen said.

A similar situation occurred in Kemper County, Mississippi, when plans to construct a natural gas-fired power plant were canceled due to massive delays and cost overruns. Not only did the project receive federal subsidies for construction, but public energy rates were raised to help finance it.

“The facility never got built, but the rate increases remained in place,” Sen said.

The economics of these facilities often depend on prices for oil, gas, and power. The Petra Nova facility shut down in 2020 due to unfavorable economic conditions surrounding oil and gas. Such reliance on industry economics has many opponents questioning whether CCS can ever be financially viable, especially since it also creates a financial incentive to keep using fossil fuels. 

As of 2022, 12 CCS projects were operating in the U.S., most of them in the oil and gas industries. Of the projects announced since 2018, Callaghan noted that more than 70% are focused on geologic storage as a climate mitigation strategy rather than for use in enhanced oil recovery. 

There have been smaller CCS projects in Europe running for the last several decades; Callaghan pointed out that the Sleipner in Norway’s North Sea has successfully stored over 15 million tons of carbon since it started operation in 1996. She noted that companies looking to take advantage of the IRA’s CCS tax credit must build the facility and provide proof of adequate carbon storage. 

“I think broadly what equals success is if we are preventing carbon emissions from going into the atmosphere that otherwise would be,” Callaghan said. “As we think about the deployment of the technology, every bit of carbon that we can help reduce from entering the atmosphere matters at this point.”

Can carbon capture and storage work at scale?

Scalability remains a question. CCS is energy and water-intensive. “We are in a time of growing water scarcity because of climate change,” Sen said. It also adds to the already growing demand for electricity, and “that’s really going to strain out the grid.” There are also technical concerns about the ability to keep the carbon in the ground and potential geological and groundwater impacts. 

Dix added that any emissions reductions from carbon capture systems could be negated by burning the fossil fuels to keep them running. “If the energy that you’re using to run [CCS] is still running off fossil fuels — dirty energy — it’s going to be a net negative. And that doesn’t account for the benzene, ethylene oxide, and other co-pollutants that would also be released at higher rates,” he said.

Sen said the push for CCS right now is premature, given the fact that carbon capture projects are “in the control of large established highly profitable industry players,” along with the many failures of carbon capture to reduce emissions. 

Dix said research on CCS “needs to be done by public universities or governments in a way that is detached from the profit motive that we’ve seen for these facilities so far.” He advocated immediate implementation of renewable energy, electrification, and phasing out of fossil fuels before looking ahead to CCS.

“So far, I would say that we haven’t seen that at all.”

Potential benefits to air quality

Callaghan said expanding CCS technology now could help communities contending with air pollution. In August 2023, the Great Plains Institute released a report showing that reducing carbon levels through carbon capture can also reduce nitrous oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SOx), and particulate matter (PM) pollution. The study examined health benefits associated with co-pollutant emissions in 10 U.S. regions and seven industries — including natural gas and coal power plants as well as petroleum refineries, steel mills, and cement facilities. It estimates that adding a carbon capture facility to existing infrastructure could generate $6.8 to $481.2 million in health benefits per year in each U.S. region. The study did not address co-pollutants outside of NOx, SOx, and PM, such as benzene, ethylene oxides, or other such carcinogens associated with oil and gas production.

“The co-pollutant capture isn’t an optional add-on,” Callaghan said. “In order for the scrubbing system that separates the carbon to work, they also have to remove these air pollutants. So there’s a financial incentive for these projects to improve air quality as well.” 

CCS could also help reduce emissions in industries like steel and cement. “The industrial sector contributes about 30% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions right now and is on track to be the leading source of emissions across our economy in the next couple of years,” Callaghan said. “Even if we were able to switch to 100% renewable energy tomorrow, we’re still going to have emissions from some of these really difficult sectors and industries.”

But Dix noted there were as yet no regulations saying CCS could only be used in such difficult industries. Instead, projects are being proposed “for the coal sector, for natural gas, peaker plants, and natural gas and fracked gas. So I think it’s really a red herring to say that it’s going to be used on cement when we’re already seeing it deployed on things that are in direct competition with renewable energy.”

The pipeline issue

The proposed use of pipelines in carbon capture is another issue. Communities across the U.S. have been fighting the development and expansion of oil and gas pipelines, and CCS proposals could generate more protests. In the Gulf South, where many CCS projects are being proposed, additional pipelines could exacerbate already high land loss rates, saltwater intrusion that has devastated the coastal wetlands and marshes that shielded communities from hurricanes, and sea level rise already intensified by existing oil and gas activities. 

“They say that implementation of CCS is the lowest cost approach to making the [energy] transition. It turns out that is completely false and it’s actually the most expensive way to make the transition,” Sen said. “What they mean is that this is the solution that will require the least actual cost or asset write-off on the part of large corporations who already have massive amounts invested in fossil fuel burning infrastructure.”

Questions remain about direct air capture, too

Thorny issues also remain for a related technology, direct air capture, which extracts carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere rather than capturing it at a power plant or other pollution source. Because CO2 is more diluted in the atmosphere than in emissions from, say, a natural gas plant, critics contend it will be difficult for the technology to reduce pollution at the necessary scale.

In August 2023, the Biden Administration announced up to $1.2 billion for the nation’s first direct air capture facilities in Texas and Louisiana, citing environmental justice, meaningful community engagement, and the Justice40 Initiative as cornerstones of project development. Yet many environmental justice advocates, especially in the Gulf South, charged that this amounts to greenwashing.

“They’re really using the Gulf South as an experiment,” Dix said. “Carbon capture at this stage in its development is definitely a false solution. It might always be a false solution. We just haven’t seen it work yet; we haven’t seen the impacts addressed to frontline communities.”

According to a 2023 report from the University of Oxford, carbon removal plans worldwide aren’t on target to meet the goals outlined in the Paris agreement.

Proponents like the Carbon Action Alliance and some environmental advocates say that both technologies are a necessary long-term strategy for reaching net negative emissions. Opponents say the technology is being promoted by the fossil fuel industry to continue business as usual. Both agree that carbon capture is a secondary strategy.

“It’ll play a complementary role to other emission reduction strategies,” Callaghan said. “There’s really no silver bullet in the quiver of arrows that we have in terms of solutions.”

One of the biggest arguments against the technology — both carbon removal and direct air capture — is the moral hazard: the idea that implementing this technology becomes a justification for fossil fuel companies to continue to delay or halt the transition to renewable energy. However, many proponents are adamant that it must be part of the clean energy transition.

“The clock is ticking. If we have an opportunity to deploy something that can help reduce emissions today, we should do it,” Callaghan argued. She and other proponents say this technology can serve as an effective bridging solution for the U.S. economy and a global economy that still relies heavily on fossil fuels. Many power plants and energy-generating facilities that run on fossil fuels will not shut down for several decades. As new facilities continue to be constructed, it could take 50 years or more before the U.S. has fully phased out fossil fuels. “[These facilities] are going to be around and we’re going to need to figure out how to reduce and remove those emissions in the meantime,” Callaghan added.

Dix described this mindset as a self-fulfilling prophecy. “I think what makes trying to change the world really difficult is that people can’t imagine a different world right now,” he said. “When you hear people say that ‘oil and gas isn’t going away’ it’s because it’s easier to imagine billions of people being displaced and millions dying from extreme heat than us taking away the political power of the fossil fuel industry.”

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