Carbon Capture Technology: Just Another False Solution

In 2007, Tuscarawas County was the selected to host a $2.3 million dollar project conducted by Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources Division of Geological Survey. This project involved drilling a test well to evaluate the capacity of underlying rock strata to store carbon dioxide emissions. The technique is called carbon capture and storage or CCS.

The Ohio Coal Development Office was one of the collaborating parties on this project which would benefit power plants, refineries, and natural gas plants by “stripping” carbon emissions from their smokestacks. The technique cannot be used for applications such as transportation emissions or emissions from agricultural processes.

The site, which was selected by researchers who worked for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Battelle Memorial Institute, was approximately two miles northeast of Port Washington off State Route 36. It was thought that if the geology of Ohio was favorable for deep well carbon storage, more industries such as oil and gas facilities would be attracted to the state.

I attended a public meeting that was held at the Kent State Tuscarawas Campus at the time of this announcement. Our family, along with many other local citizens, attended the meeting. The major fear of many in attendance was how this deep well (8,600 feet) might affect their well water.

In theory, a well drilled into porous rock would be able to distribute carbon dioxide in that rock layer much like the way oil and gas deposits are naturally held in the layers. A higher porosity rock like sandstone will allow the gas to move through the layer while an upper, less porous layer of rock like shale traps the gas from escaping. Think of it like a cake, the sponge portion being the porous rock while the icing is the upper impermeable shale layer. Up until this time, little was known about the geology deep below the state, so the project filled some knowledge gaps about Ohio’s subsurface layers. The results, currently published on the ODNR site, showed the rock formations at ODNR CO2 Number 1 Well were not porous enough to be used for storage.

In its current state, CCS is another false promise when it comes to addressing the climate crisis. The very industry that is a main contributor to climate change can now profit from tax breaks and government funding being directed at CCS projects. A 2019 CIEL Report, “Fuel to Fire” states, “It is not surprising that the fossil fuel industry has invested and is investing heavily in the technologies that would render a transition from fossil fuels less urgent.” Carbon capture is one of those technologies.

First used back in 1972 in in Chevron’s Terrell natural Gas plant in Texas, carbon capture can remove carbon dioxide from exhaust fumes of industrial facilities such as coal and gas power plants or from the surrounding air.

There are several techniques that have been used to capture CO2. One involves separation using a solvent where a liquid absorbs the CO2 from the flue gases or an absorbent like activated charcoal is used to capture the carbon dioxide. Another method uses membranes that allow one gas component to pass through while stopping another. Finally, cryogenic separation captures the carbon dioxide by cooling and condensing it. This process is popular but requires high energy inputs. Once captured the carbon dioxide can be stored or used. Storage involves the gas being transported to locations where it is injected deep underground into saline deposits or rock strata.

Some of the uses for the carbon dioxide captured include as a feedstock for chemicals or fuels. A reaction referred to as carboxylation produces methane, methanol and formic acid using carbon dioxide. However, these processes require extensive amounts of energy and so the costs of products exceed any benefits of carbon captured. Carbon dioxide is also used to distill and carbonate beverages or for use in greenhouses to help promote plant growth, however, carbon captured this way quickly re-enters the atmosphere. There are also substantial costs and energy involved to transport the carbon dioxide to a desired destination.

Most natural gas deposits also contain non-carbon-based gases such as helium, nitrogen and sulfides as well as carbon dioxide and other hydrocarbons. These must be removed in processing plants. The carbon dioxide in this mixture can be removed and sold to other companies that use it to help “bolster” production of older oil fields in a process known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR).  During this procedure, pressurized CO2 is pumped into old oil field wells to help force out any remaining oil deposits. The majority of the world’s 21 large-scale CCS plants are located in the USA and Canada, and all but five sell or send their carbon dioxide to facilities involved in enhanced oil recovery.   

There are many economic, social, and environmental problems associated with using CCS. Using the carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery does not guarantee the gas is permanently removed from the atmosphere. Eventually it is released back to the atmosphere as it leaks from the wells and fissures. Additionally, it enables more oil to be extracted thus continuing our reliance on fossil fuels and contributing to climate change.  

In the CIEL report “Fuel to Fire” Exxon stated that it had a working interest in one quarter of the world’s total carbon capture and storage (CCS) capacity and Shell is involved with four current CCS projects. Chevron has invested $75 million in CCS research in the past ten years while, BP is a current sponsor of the CO2 Capture Project. There are economic incentives that are encouraging fossil fuel industries to champion the use of CCS. These include government programs as well as tax incentives.

In 2008, a program was set up to give tax credits to companies using CCS. According to section 45 Q of the tax code, companies could get tax credits for capturing carbon dioxide and doing one of three things with it: dispose of it in an underground secure geological site, use it for enhanced oil recovery, or use it in a commercial process. In 2018, the tax credits for CCS were raised to $50 per metric ton of CO2 from the previous $20 per ton and credits for carbon dioxide used in EOR were raised from $20 to $35 per ton.

Estimates based on IRS records show that Exxon may have claimed hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits using this law. There is a requirement that companies claiming the tax credit also commit to a monitoring program through the EPA. A new industry group, Energy Advance Center represents companies like Exxon. They have lobbied to do away with monitoring programs that would ensure CCS emissions did not escape back into the atmosphere.

Additionally, CCS research projects have received substantial amounts of government funding. According to the Department of Energy, CCS research projects received $110 million in 2019, $72 million in 2020, and recently in April of 2021 received $75 million.

Recently, US Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Capito introduced legislation to augment the tax credits for CCS under 45Q and 48A, tax credits for coal companies using CCS. One facet of the bill would grant the same tax treatment to CCS as is currently offered to wind and solar projects. It would also allow for direct payments of carbon capture credits. No surprise that many of the Carbon Capture Utilization and Tax Credit Amendment Act supporters are from states heavily influenced by the fossil fuel industry (West Virginia, Wyoming and North Dakota).

Finally, there are issues of safety involved in CCS. Once the carbon dioxide is captured it can be used or stored but it also must be transported. This involves pipelines. In 2019, in Yazo, Mississippi a 24-inch carbon-dioxide containing underground pipeline ruptured. More than 300 people were evacuated and 46 people were treated at hospitals. The concentration of carbon dioxide was high enough to cause gas-powered car engines to stop. First responders said some people were unconscious while others wandered around like zombies.

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The Author

Randi Pokladnik

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