The Myth of Carbon Capture Technology

AEP’s John Amos coal-fired power plant near Charleston, WV. Photo by Vivian Stockman. Flyover courtesy SouthWings.org

The AFL-CIO and Energy Futures, a think-tank led by former Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, have formed a new group, called the Labor Energy Partnership. They are proposing that the Ohio River Valley become a storage hub for fossil-fuel generated hydrogen and carbon dioxide using carbon capture storage (CCS) technology.

Some of the biggest cheerleaders of this plan include fossil fuel companies and Brian Anderson, the former West Virginia University professor who spoke in favor of a petrochemical hub in the Ohio River Valley. Anderson was tapped by President Biden to head up the White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization. He will be holding public meetings and no doubt singing the praises of CCS to save coal-fired power plants and jobs in areas where economies had been coal-centered.

CCS uses a technique to strip the carbon dioxide from a waste stream such as effluent from a coal-fired power plant smokestack. Although the oil industry has been using this technique for years, MIT Technology Review points out in an August 9 article, “carbon-sucking machines require large amounts of energy and materials.”

According to the Global Carbon Capture Storage Institute, the current amount of carbon emissions being captured and stored by this technique is about 40 million tons per year or 0.1 percent of total annual carbon dioxide emissions.

The United Nation’s Climate Report released on Monday says we have to remove “5 billion tons of carbon a year by 2050 and 17 billion by 2100 to maintain a 2 degree C increase in the average global temperature.” That’s 125 times more CO2 than we are currently removing with CCS.

There are many environmental and economic problems associated with using CCS. The main use of the carbon dioxide captured is for enhanced oil recovery to help “bolster” production of older oil fields. During this procedure, pressurized CO2 is pumped into old oil field wells to help force out any remaining oil deposits. Using the carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery does not guarantee the gas is permanently removed from the atmosphere as it can leak from wells and fissures.

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. This serves to encourage more fossil fuel extraction. Additionally, an enormous system of pipelines will be needed to transport the captured carbon dioxide to other areas of use. These pipelines have been known to rupture as was the case in Yazoo, Mississippi where on February 27, 2020 a CO2 line ruptured. The carbon dioxide filled the air causing the evacuation of over 300 people and the hospitalization of 45. First responders reported citizens foaming at the mouth from the CO2 and combustion engines stopped from the lack of oxygen.

In the 2019 Center for International Environmental Law 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.

The very industry that is a main contributor to climate change will profit from tax breaks and government funding being directed at CCS projects. The CIEL report 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.

In 2008, a program was set up to give tax credits to companies using CCS. According to section 45Q 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. 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).

A recent July 2021 article in The Guardian reported that the largest CCS project, Chevron Australia’s Gorgon CCS Project was a dismal failure. The three-billion-dollar project was projected to capture and bury 80 percent of emissions from a liquified natural gas project but only reached 40 percent. If you back out the emissions released during the processing of the gas (which were not captured) the end result is negative carbon captured.

Another consideration is that CCS does nothing to address the record levels of methane gas being released into the atmosphere as a result of the fracking boom. IPCC scientists now say, “that methane’s influence on climate change has added 0.5 C to the current warming the world is experiencing.”

The only area that CCS addresses is the carbon dioxide in stack gases, it does nothing to curb emissions from the coal mining process, the fracking process, the gas flares, gas explosions, gas leaks in infrastructure, oil spills, transportation of equipment and then the resources needed to build and fuel the CCS facility itself; all of these are energy intensive.

The bottom line is the most effective way to deal with emissions of carbon dioxide is to prevent them from ever being created rather than trying to pluck them haphazardly from the air or smokestacks.

Carbon capture and storage technology in its current state is not efficient or at a scale large enough to address the climate crisis in this decade. Sadly, it is being used by industry leaders and politicians as a distraction to evade investing in proven technologies like solar and wind energy and energy efficiency; all feasible ways to address the climate crisis. We are running out of time and industry-backed proposals like CCS will not save us.

Dr. Randi Pokladnik is a Urichsville, OH resident who holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry as well as a master’s and Ph. D in environmental studies. She holds a certificate in hazardous materials regulation and is an Ohio certified naturalist volunteer. She is active volunteer with OVEC and several other environmental organizations.

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The Author

Randi Pokladnik

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