Introduction

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has become the darling of the Biden Administration as well as the fossil fuel industry hoping to continue its toxic emissions, and technology and engineering companies hoping to benefit from billions of dollars in federal money to develop and build CCS technology.  It is being hyped as the ideal solution for solving the climate crisis, while at the same time permitting us to continue spewing carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, thereby avoiding drastic changes to our lifestyles.  But the hype obscures a darker truth, one that local leaders need to be aware of before being persuaded to permit CCS projects to be built in their communities.  This blog explains the drawbacks of CCS, and why communities need to push back against the development of such projects where they live, work and play.

What is Carbon Capture and Storage? 

Carbon capture and storage involves trapping carbon dioxide at its emission source, transporting it to a storage location (usually deep underground) and isolating it. Here is a good introductory article from howstuffworks: How Carbon Capture Works | HowStuffWorks 

The Biden Administration is Banking on CCS

The Biden Administration is relying on CCS as a necessary means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in order to help solve the climate crisis. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that we cannot meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord without CCS as a part of the solution to global warming. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that passed in November 2021 and was signed by Biden into law relies on this assumption, allocating roughly $3 billion to develop CCS technology. Even the stalled Build Back Better bill contained CCS allocations.  

What’s Wrong With This Picture? 

The Assumption that CCS is a Solution to the Climate Crisis is Wrong

The premise that CCUS is a necessary—or even appropriate—approach to addressing the climate crisis as well as the pollution burdens borne by frontline communities is deeply flawed, as documented by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and the federal government’s own watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The CIEL Report: CCS/CCUS unnecessary and counterproductive 

The CIEL Report, Confronting the Myth of Carbon-Free Fossil Free Fossil Fuels, Why Carbon Capture is Not a Climate Solution, proposes that CCS and CCUS technologies are not only unnecessary for the rapid transformation required to keep warming under 1.5°C (an international goal of the Paris Agreement) but they delay that transformation, providing the fossil fuel industry with a license to continue polluting. This report provides a detailed exploration of the topic:

  • CCS Isn’t Carbon Negative, or Even Carbon Neutral
    • CCS does not remove carbon from the atmosphere; rather it prevents some emissions from reaching the atmosphere, provided that the captured gases are not later released.
    • CCS masks the harmful carbon emissions from the underlying source, enabling that source to continue operating rather than being replaced altogether, while creating additional risks, impacts, and costs. 
    • The injection of captured carbon into oil wells to enhance oil recovery — the most pervasive use of CCS today — exacerbates global warming by boosting oil production and prolonging the fossil fuel era.
  • Large-Scale CCS is Neither Viable nor Necessary
    • The unproven scalability of CCS technologies and their prohibitive costs mean they cannot play any significant role in the rapid reduction of global emissions necessary to limit warming to 1.5°C. 
    • Existing CCS facilities capture less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions. 
    • CCS pilot projects have repeatedly overpromised and underdelivered. 
    • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the best chance of keeping warming at or below 1.5°C makes limited to no use of engineered carbon capture technologies. Rather, this pathway involves a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels along with limited carbon removal by natural sources such as reforestation and enhanced soil carbon uptake.
    • By transitioning the transportation industry and building sectors to 100 percent clean, renewable energy along with the phase out of fossil fuels, and enhancing natural carbon sequestration, it is possible to keep warming at or below 1.5° C without CCS.
    • Clean energy is cheaper than CCS.
  • Even for the Hard-to-Decarbonize Industrial Sector, CCS is not the Answer
    • Applying CCS to high-emitting industrial activities, like petrochemical, steel, or cement manufacturing, is not economical.
    • Renewable sources for electricity and heat can dramatically reduce industrial emissions.
    • CCS obscures the role of reduction, reuse, and recycling in lowering industrial emissions. 
    • Applying CCS to industrial sources requires massive infrastructure buildout. 
    • Transporting carbon to storage sites and injecting it underground involves further risks and costs.
  • CCS Perpetuates Fossil Fuel Systems and Impacts
    • Even in its idealized form, CCS only prevents a fraction of emissions from the underlying source.
    • Using captured carbon to produce still more fossil fuels accelerates the climate crisis. 
    • CCS subsidies end up in oil industry pockets.
    • The push for carbon capture and storage primarily benefits the fossil fuel industry. 
  • CCS Poses a Growing and Poorly Understood Threat to Communities and the Environment
    • The transportation of compressed CO2 raises a host of health and safety concerns. 
    • Accidents are inevitable as CO2 pipelines are increasingly built in populated areas.
    • These safety hazards and environmental risks fall disproportionately on marginalized communities. 

The GAO Report: CCS/CCUS initial projects expensive failures

The GAO released a report in December 2021 that is also highly critical of CCUS as a viable solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The report highlights the following Fast Facts:

  • Since 2009, the Department of Energy (DOE) has invested $1.1 billion in 11 projects to show how carbon dioxide emissions from coal-power and industrial facilities could be captured and stored.
  • DOE initially committed to eight coal projects, mostly new power plants with carbon-capture equipment. But seven were not built, largely due to factors that made coal power less economically viable.
  • Also, senior management directed DOE to bypass some cost controls to help struggling coal projects. 

As a result, DOE spent almost $300 million more than planned on four facilities that were never built. (emphasis added)

The GAO looks at issues from the standpoint of a business model and not from the standpoint of feasibility, but even within those limitations this report is very damning.  Rather than operating on the assumption that CCS is a viable technology, the Biden Administration needs to follow the science and the facts. The federal government should not waste billions of dollars on a technology that is likely doomed to failure and will not mitigate the climate crisis. That money could be better used elsewhere. While it may be too late to prevent expenditure of the funds already allocated for CCS in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, it is imperative that climate activists prevent more money from being wasted until and unless future CCS projects are proven to work as intended and are not prohibitively expensive.

CCS Will Take Too Long to Develop in the Time We Have Left to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

CCS technologies require carbon dioxide (CO2) to be transported, usually by pipeline, for permanent and verifiable sequestration. The research, development, and buildout of these technologies will take years, if not decades, to implement. Meanwhile, the latest report from the IPCC, issued April 4, 2022, indicates that greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to rise, and without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C is beyond reach. Though we have options, this requires “a substantial reduction in fossil fuel use, widespread electrification, improved energy efficiency, and use of alternative fuels (such as hydrogen).” 

A previous IPCC report, issued Feb. 28, 2022, warned the United Nations that we are NOT on target to avert catastrophe, and that the climate crisis could soon overwhelm the ability of both nature and humanity to adapt. In view of this evidence, and the excessive timeline for developing CCS technologies, the federal government should be investing in more effective and efficient means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

Given the dire warnings in the IPCC reports, it is crucial the federal government invest in carbon sequestration methods that work and do not require decades to develop. We do not have decades left to address the climate crisis. 

CCS is Environmentally Destructive and Will Harm Vulnerable Communities

The Biden Administration has frequently stated that one of its goals is to maximize the benefits of decarbonization and ensure that underserved communities benefit equitably from the transition to a clean energy system. See, for example, the Long Term Strategy of the United States, Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions by 2050, published in November 2021, pp. 17, 19, 50, 51, & 54

In addition, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which is in the process of crafting regulations governing CCS, has said it recognizes the imperative for CCS actions to be considered in a timely manner and in the context of a strong regulatory regime that includes early consultation with Tribal Nations and meaningful engagement with communities, stakeholders, and other sovereigns.  

However, CCS requires the development of massive pipelines across the country, which are environmentally destructive to Tribal Nations and communities through which they would need to be built. These pipelines would transport captured carbon hundreds of miles to underground storage sites. To do this, the government will have to take, by eminent domain, properties that are in Tribal lands or have been in families for generations, with no guarantee they will be safe in the event of a leak or pipeline rupture. This is unacceptable, and communities are fighting back. See this article, for example: Pipeline Fighters Hub  

President Biden pledged to assist vulnerable communities that already suffer serious adverse health effects from industrial pollution. This pledge will be meaningless if CCS pipelines are built through the same communities where industrial facilities already exist, which historically have been low income communities of color.

CCS is Extremely Dangerous in the Event of a Pipeline Leak: C02 Leaks are Deadly

Carbon dioxide is extremely dangerous if there is a pipeline leak. Already, one such leak has occurred in the United States. A CO2 pipeline leaked in Satartia, MS, in February 2020, nearly suffocating residents. First responders had no emergency training to deal with such a leak, not knowing that compressed, leaked liquid CO2 creates a dense white cloud that stays close to the ground, displacing oxygen and potentially killing people through asphyxiation. For more, see this Huffington Post article: Gassing Satartia: Carbon Dioxide Pipeline Linked To Mass Poisoning

In 1986, CO2 escaped from a lake in Cameroon and killed roughly 1,700 people, plus every living creature in its wake, even insects. This incident was not caused by a pipeline leak, but does illustrate just how dangerous CO2 can be if massive amounts leak from any source. Read about it in this History.com article: Gas cloud kills Cameroon villagers 

If CO2 were to escape from either a pipeline or underground sequestration storage site, it could kill every living being within its proximity. What guarantees do we have that CO2 will not escape from storage locations? None. Currently, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure a leak will not occur.

There also is a significant danger from pipelines carrying CO2 should water get into the pipes. According to a report prepared by Accufacts, Inc. for the Pipeline Safety Trust, free water forming in those pipelines could corrode and potentially rupture them, with disastrous consequences for people and the surrounding environment. 

CCS Should Not Be Permitted To Perpetuate the Fossil Fuel Industry 

CCS is currently not widely used in the United States, but where employed, it is designed to perpetuate the fossil fuel industry, such as in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations  Given the warnings in the latest IPCC reports that the time is now for drastic reductions in fossil fuel infrastructure and a conversion to clean energy, CCS, if used at all, should not be a tool for the perpetuation of a toxic industry that has caused and continues to exacerbate the climate crisis. Oil companies should therefore be prohibited from using captured CO2 for all forms of EOR. 

Let’s face it. The fossil fuel industry has been lying to us about climate change for decades. Its promotion of CCS as a solution to the climate crisis is just one more chapter in its desperate campaign to keep its industry alive when it really needs to be dismantled in its entirety. 

As an article in YaleEnvironment 360, published at the Yale School of the Environment in 2014, states, quoting Chris Jones, a chemical engineer who was working on CCS at the Georgia Institute of Technology: CCS “will perpetuate fossil fuel use and may prove a wash as far as keeping global warming pollution out of the atmosphere. Then there are the risks of human-caused earthquakes as a result of pumping high-pressure liquids underground or accidental releases as all that CO2 finds its way back to the atmosphere.”  

The article goes on to say that “the expansion of enhanced oil recovery remains the main front in an intensifying effort to more broadly adopt CCS technology and reduce its price, which is currently the major impediment to its deployment. 

Overall, this article from Yale Environment 360 views CCS as a potential tool for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. However, even its generally pro-CCS stace points to the drawbacks in using this type of technology, due to its limited efficacy and cost.  

There are other, far better and more effective ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.  See Section 7 below.

For more information, see the following articles on the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long disinformation campaign: 

Federal Funding for CCUS is Finite

The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in November 2021 allocates some $3 billion for CCUS research and development. This is a finite source of funding. What will happen to these massive pipelines when federal funding ends? Who will maintain pipelines that are vulnerable to corrosion and rupture? Who will ensure that underground storage facilities are secure for decades to come so that a catastrophic leak will not occur ? What happens if a company that owns these pipelines goes bankrupt? These are questions that need to be addressed before any CCS infrastructure is built.  

We already have a serious problem in this country with abandoned oil wells leaking methane, many formerly owned by now bankrupt oil companies, and there is no entity in charge of capping these leaks. We must not repeat the same mistakes with CCS.

Nature Offers Better Ways to Sequester Carbon

Nature-based solutions to sequester carbon exist and are proven, while costing far less than CCS. These include the restoration of forests, grasslands, wetlands, peatlands, and kelp forests.

See for example, “Using Nature to Reduce Carbon Pollution,” a project by the Nature Conservancy, on natural carbon sequestration in Massachusetts, and look for a blog on nature based carbon sequestration solutions soon from 350 Bay Area.

Footnotes:

1-Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage, or CCUS, is similar and sometimes used interchangeably with CCS, though CCUS usually refers to carbon capture as a means to facilitate Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), an umbrella term for the use of pressurized CO2 injected into existing oil and gas reservoirs to squeeze out more oil.

2-For additional information critical of CCS as well as “blue hydrogen,” see this video, presented by Better Path with speakers Mark Jacobson and Sandra Steingraber.