The Carbon Capture Distraction

The Carbon Capture Distraction

The climate left needs to move beyond the question of which technologies are good or bad and focus instead on how we implement them.

Anti-CCS protesters in Australia in 2021 (Matt Hrkac/Wikimedia Commons)

In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new set of stricter carbon dioxide emissions standards. For coal-fired power plants, one way to meet those benchmarks would have been to use carbon capture technology, in which special equipment is installed to separate out CO2 from power plant gas streams. To complete the system called carbon capture and storage (CCS), the separated carbon is then transported and stashed in underground rock formations.

The resistance from polluting utilities was swift. They denounced CCS as unproven and costly, arguments now surfacing once again as the Biden administration considers new EPA standards for power plant emissions. Today, power providers are raising the same points that they did in 2012. According to the American Public Power Association, CCS is not adequately demonstrated, financially infeasible, and requires an “arduous and slow” permitting process in which utilities are required to “submit numerous and extensive lists of documents.” The Arizona Utilities Group warned in a public comment to the EPA that this “new, unproven technology could have unknown health, safety or environmental effects.”

Ironically, these criticisms of CCS are now coming not just from industry but from the climate movement itself. Hundreds of environmental organizations have described carbon capture as expensive, exceptionally risky, far from proven, and not beneficial to communities situated near power facilities. In 2021, more than 500 groups—including the Climate Justice Alliance, Greenpeace, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and—signed an open letter in a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post calling on policymakers to reject CCS as a false solution. In fact, for many of these groups, fighting CCS has become a key organizing focus along with opposition to other approaches they see as distractions, such as biofuels and hydrogen. These anti-CCS efforts have been particularly focused on the Gulf Coast, where there are several proposals for new plants, and in the Midwest, where companies have made clumsy efforts to build CO2 pipelines that would transport CO2 from ethanol plants to storage sites. Now, new incentives for CCS in the Inflation Reduction Act—along with other provisions that have disappointed green and environmental-justice groups—are gathering mounting critiques from climate advocates.

But are these criticisms warranted? CCS is definitely more expensive than the current alternative: putting waste into the atmosphere for free. That cost is the main reason why there are not more CCS units in operation to demonstrate how the technology works commercially. But carbon capture, transport, and storage are mature...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: