Carbon Capture and Storage: A Pipedream That Sinks Under Scrutiny
Carbon capture and storage, often abbreviated to CCS, is increasingly referenced in government and corporate responsibility policies as an essential recourse in mitigating the climate crisis. But what actually is it? Is it at the forefront of clean energy, a potential game-changer in the fight against climate change? Or instead is it an energy-intensive game of hide and seek that is wasting precious time and resources?
How it works
CCS involves a three step process of first capturing carbon dioxide, secondly compressing it into a liquid state to be transported (often by pipeline or ship) and finally storing it deep underground usually in saline aquifers or depleted oil and gas reservoirs.
In contrast to biological carbon sequestration, which involves enhancing or protecting vegetation or aquatic environments that are valuable natural stores of carbon, this engineered process is a type of geological carbon sequestration with CO2 injected underground into porous bedrock.
Carbon Management Provisions (Source: US Department of Energy)
Wiping clean dirty origins and output
Ironically, in total opposition to how it is now being promoted, carbon storage technology was actually developed by the oil and gas industry as a way of extracting more reserves from oil fields close to depletion. Known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR), pumping liquid carbon dioxide into subterranean reservoirs increases pressure and reduces oil viscosity, dislodging residual stores and allowing it to flow more easily to the oil well.
Capturing carbon at source is the most productive method due to its higher concentrations directly where it is being produced by the burning of fossil fuels. Nevertheless, its capacity is estimated at only 60 megatons per year - just 0.15% of global emissions - at a cost of around $100 per metric ton of CO2. Importantly this type of CCS is also based on continuing and even expanding fossil fuel usage, which is in clear opposition to the most urgent challenge in the fight against climate change.
Extensive new infrastructure including enormous amounts of highly specialist equipment would also be required for CCS at scale. This is not only confronting in the widespread upheaval and development it necessitates in an already depleted landscape, but begs major questions as to the overall feasibility of the financial and energy expenditure it requires.
Is direct capture a load of hot air?
An alternative method of carbon capture, direct air capture (DAC), attempts to remove CO2 already in the atmosphere and is therefore potentially more beneficial as it is not tied to the further burning of fossil fuels. However, this technology must filter out all other gases (over 99.9% of the air) to capture the 0.042% of carbon dioxide in it, Its required processing capacity and running costs are immense. As Al Gore explains in his recent TED talk titled What the fossil fuel industry doesn’t want you to know, its deployment at high capacity is, as it stands, an unfeasible climate solution.
The numbers really put this in perspective. The current cost of DAC runs between $200-$1000+ per metric ton of CO2, making it $30,000-$150,000 to capture the emissions of a single transatlantic flight. Capturing CO2 using DAC requires roughly the same amount of energy as was produced when the emissions were released. Perhaps most telling of its limitations is that last year, DAC removed just over 0.01 megaton of CO2 from the atmosphere when in the same period global emissions totalled 36.8 gigatons - that’s the equivalent of removing a pint when we are releasing an olympic swimming pool’s worth of emissions.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the focus CCS puts on capturing carbon emissions means other harmful greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are being dangerously overlooked. With an even greater damaging effect on our planet when compared molecule-to-molecule, the rising levels of these gases are a significant cause for concern that remains unaddressed by CCS.
Doesn't seem like the most straightforward path to decarbonization, does it? (Source: SCCS)
Damaging to investors and communities
The higher concentrations of carbon in flue gases from fossil fuel activity make its removal easier and less energy intensive than from the atmosphere. However, despite the US Department of Energy having already poured billions of dollars of taxpayer investment into a succession of high-profile carbon management projects, there are still no examples of carbon capture success stories. Notable failures have included Texas’ Petra Nova coal plant (2020), the Kemper power plant in Mississippi (2018) and FutureGen in Illinois (2015), all of which focused on capturing CO2 while continuing fossil fuels burning that is the core of the problem.
For CCS to exist at scale, thousands of kilometres of purpose-built CO2 pipelines would need to be installed and inescapably some of this would be routed underneath human settlements. Not only will this necessitate extensive planning and industrial manufacturing, but will cause added disruption, destruction and risk of rupture to affected communities. As such, it may seem unsurprising that The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council categorically concluded in their 2021 report that CCS and pipeline creation and expansion projects do not benefit the community.
Yet despite this, the US Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (2021), perhaps under the influence of ExonMobil lobbyists, went on to allocate a further US$12 billion of US$76 billion clean-energy funding to carbon management such as CCS.
The landmark Inflation Reduction Act (2022) further continues the US emphasis on CCS with increased tax credits for companies using the technology, which is predominantly the fossil fuel industry in their enhanced oil recovery processes.
CCS benefits the oil and gas industry. Does it provide returns for communities and investors? (Photo by Patrik Hendry, Unsplash)
The idea of carbon offset has rocketed in popularity and it’s clear that the seductive appeal of CCS lies in an ‘easy’ solution that justifies business as usual. No need to reduce energy usage. No need to reduce fossil fuel extraction. Rather, a paradoxical licence to increase the output of the world’s most polluting industry. But, all the money in the world cannot defy physics.
As it stands, the energy and capital required to capture and transport CO2 at scale doesn’t add up to the carbon it removes from the atmosphere. Instead, our most effective carbon capture comes from the natural world and biological carbon sequestration and yet ludicrously these finite resources continue to be destroyed in pursuit of the CCS pipedream.
There is an urgent need to protect and regenerate diverse environments including kelp beds, seagrass, algaes and peatland that act as valuable carbon sinks. Initiatives with a focus on reforesting, rewilding, reforming agricultural land and protecting our oceans drive carbon capture and storage on the largest proven scales. Most critically, a transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy as quickly and comprehensively as possible will make the biggest difference.
Biological carbon sequestration provided by the natural world is the most effective at scale (Photo by Benjamin L. Jones, Unsplash)
The only future is green
Pinning hopes on CCS and its lack of tangible success can only be viewed as a greenwashed distraction used to justify the oil and gas industry’s ongoing operations. As such, it can be likened to the deceptive marketing strategies employed by the tobacco industry in the 1960s and 1970s. It is now well-recognised that the hiring of actors to smoke on television or introducing light or low-tar cigarettes as a ‘healthier’ alternative perpetuated a false sense of security around smoking. CCS threatens to do the same for fossil fuels and their carbon emissions.
Ultimately, while all research into climate-stabilising technologies is valuable, CCS seems crucially flawed in that it requires ever more energy to be able to scale, completely undermining its purpose. In diverting vast amounts of precious time and money into a pipedream, it is stalling genuine action. As a climate solution very limited in scalability, it could help to address hard-to-decarbonise industries such as cement production, but only if powered by renewable energy.
Article by Lauren Holford and Jaroslav Holub
Published on January 03, 2024
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