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 technologies that have been in use since the early 1970s, primarily in the oil industry. At natural gas processing plants, for example, CO2 has to be separated out before the gas can be sold. That CO2 is then injected into depleted oil wells to extract more oil—a perverse misuse of the technology that speaks to the government’s failure to adequately regulate pollutants, not to a failing of the technology itself. In other words, yes, the most common usage of captured carbon represents a failure—but of social priorities, not basic engineering. The idea that carbon capture “does not work” is inaccurate.

Still, there are risks and hazards associated with CCS, as a 2020 pipeline breach in Satartia, Mississippi, clearly illustrated. The pipeline’s rupture, the result of a landslide, led to the hospitalization of more than forty people and the evacuation of hundreds more; the operator received a $3,866,734 fine for multiple violations of federal pipeline-safety regulations. But the risks of transport and storage have been studied and are understood. In fact, the risks associated with underground injection are the very reason for the rigorous EPA permitting process that utility companies are now complaining about.

The ability of industries to avoid the costs of CCS by continuing to emit pollutants for free hinges on the argument that the feasibility of CCS has not been proven. The widespread consensus among climate advocates that this is indeed the case bolsters this corporate argument in the court of public opinion.

How did we get to the point where climate advocates are expending precious resources—time, energy, attention—fighting the same pollution-control equipment that industry has historically fought? Power plant owners, who are the ones who would have to pay for the capture, have been downright hostile to the idea of CCS. Fossil fuel producers have done next to nothing to invest in the technology—they could have put it on all their refineries or gas processing plants, for example, if they really wanted to bolster the industry—but they prefer to wait for the government to either pay for it or force the issue. Yet the inaccurate perception of a monolithic fossil fuel industry driving CCS has led to reflexive opposition from climate advocates. This is a missed opportunity. There are critical uses for geologic storage unrelated to power plants. Rather than fixating only on the misuses of CCS, the climate movement should push for the careful application of the technology to the areas where it can make a difference.

The Basics of CCS

Like other systems—water, or electricity—CCS describes a socio-technical system, with many different sources of CO2, types of intermediary infrastructure such as pipelines, and end uses. Many of the problems that climate activists highlight have to do with certain aspects of this system and could be addressed if these technologies were reimagined and deployed with climate goals in mind.

It starts with capture. Carbon can be captured at all kinds of facilities. The stream of CO2 emitted from an ethanol, fertilizer, or gas-processing plant is very pure, while the flue gas from a natural gas power plant may be just 8 percent CO2 and requires more work to treat it. Critics often argue that CCS would actually increase air-pollutant emissions, because a gas-fired power plant with CO2-capturing tech may need to use 20 percent more fuel (for an older, retrofitted plant) or 5-8 percent more fuel (for a new, more efficient plant) to produce the same amount of electricity as one without it. But the same technologies could be used to remove other pollutants too, such as sulfur oxides, if regions elect to use carbon capture in the power sector.  The first generation of many of these technologies was developed for the oil and gas industry. The next generation could instead be geared toward climate and environmental goals, used to clean up multiple industries as well as remove carbon from the atmosphere.

What about the transport and storage components? People are rightfully concerned about the potential failure of regulatory systems to protect communities from exposure. There is already a well-established regulatory structure for permitting storage. When it comes to transport, the most efficient means is by pipeline. CO2 pipelines have a better safety record than other types; before Satartia, there was one injury in the past twenty years. Transport does have critical regulatory gaps, but the Department of Transportation has initiated rulemaking to update pipeline standards and emergency-preparedness requirements. The safety of transport and storage are areas where engagement from the climate movement will be vital.

Building all this infrastructure is expensive and difficult, so it’s natural to ask if we really need it. The main role for CCS in an electrifying world is in industry. About half the emissions involved with cement production, for example, come from chemical reactions in the kiln; CCS can decarbonize this process, and the captured carbon can even be used to make the cement stronger. However, in many emissions-heavy industries, such as steel, new technologies are emerging that will allow these processes to be decarbonized without using CCS. Here, too, the role of CCS is likely to be minimal.

Ultimately, the most critical need for geological carbon storage is to store carbon captured directly from the air—through carbon removal approaches like bioenergy with CCS, or direct air capture with CCS. In a net-zero scenario, there are two main reasons to try to draw down carbon from the atmosphere: to balance out any remaining greenhouse gas emissions, such as nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture, and, eventually, to potentially lower CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere if we overshoot temperature targets. While carbon removal is not the same as point-source carbon capture, both require extensive geologic storage.

The bottom line is that there’s no one-size-fits-all calculation of the costs and benefits of CCS. We need to develop the vocabulary to distinguish helpful and necessary applications of CCS from damaging and unnecessary ones. The picture painted by some climate advocates of a coming boom of rapacious and ineffective CCS projects is inaccurate. Industry makes halfhearted gestures toward implementing CCS, but even with the tax credits promised in the Inflation Reduction Act, we haven’t seen many significant commitments relative to the scale of the need and opportunity. Part of this is because many companies still don’t see a real business model for the technology after those tax credits expire. All the net-zero targets and sustainability talk notwithstanding, they still don’t seem ready to bet that real climate policy will happen.

Even alongside other climate policies, such as charging companies for their carbon emissions, CCS is not going to be the most efficient solution for most activities that cause emissions. It will be easier and cheaper to decarbonize with renewables. Rather than leading to the continued use of fossil fuels, CCS makes fossil fuels more expensive and thus less competitive against other energy options. Requiring CCS on power plants or on industrial facilities makes the alternatives look better. We need to bolster these alternatives in order to end fossil fuel extraction.

A Left Strategy on CCS

Fossil fuel companies would probably be happy for the U.S. climate movement to tie up its energy in opposing CCS infrastructure that they don’t want to build anyway. It is a trap to focus too much energy on opposing so-called false solutions. The climate left needs to move beyond the question of which technologies are good or bad and focus instead on how we implement them. For instance, in Germany, where opposition to CCS has historically been strong, the country’s bold target of carbon neutrality by 2045 has pushed some Green Party leaders to offer support for certain CCS applications, particularly in industries like cement where emissions are unavoidable.

The U.S. political right wing does not have an answer to climate change. Neither does the technocratic and centrist net-zero discourse, which has failed to achieve adequate reductions, as will become increasingly apparent within just a few years. With no one else driving the agenda, the left needs to offer an alternative, sector-by-sector roadmap for decarbonization. We need to fill the voids in leadership, analysis, planning, organizing, and coalition-building. Rather than focusing on particular technologies, we need to be setting objectives for the areas in which these technologies could be used. If we put forward both best-use cases for CCS and alternatives to CCS, we are more likely to avoid bad CCS projects—and we can play a leading role rather than a defensive one. Here are a few areas to consider:

The power sector: The argument for using CCS is to increase the reliability of the grid. The left needs to shape proposals to scale up renewable energy storage, as well as geothermal and nuclear, which would obviate the argument for CCS in the power sector. Possible goals for a progressive program in this area include public and community ownership models, ethical sourcing of materials used in storage, and inclusive workforce development.

Industrial decarbonization: Industry is projected to be the largest source of domestic emissions by 2030. Progressive policy could continue to focus on decreasing the impact of industry on frontline communities, replacing petrochemicals with biomaterials and recycling, figuring out how to build equitable and safe green-hydrogen supply chains, and prioritizing high-quality union jobs. A left strategy on industrial decarbonization could limit the scope of CCS to applications where it is truly needed.

Carbon removal: A progressive agenda for engineered carbon removal with geologic storage should involve working to develop clear limits on the residual emissions that removals are expected to compensate for. When it comes to carbon-removal deployment, Data for Progress and Carbon180 have outlined some principles for a progressive platform.

There are many other CCS policy areas under development that could use attention from climate advocates. But, again, CCS can address only a small percentage of global emissions, so it is worth only a small percentage of the climate movement’s time. There’s an opportunity cost to putting energy into fighting the general spectre of CCS. The days spent protesting “false solutions” are days not spent fighting to address the backlog of transmission hookups, getting heat pumps in houses, or implementing adaptation projects. This work is more complex, but it is what will move the needle on climate action. 

It’s true that we need a robust climate movement to block truly harmful projects that would lock in new fossil fuel infrastructure or violate Indigenous sovereignty, and it is critical to support communities in this work. But it would be a mistake to narrowly focus climate organizing on reenacting successful infrastructure-blocking tactics in ways that fail to discern useful industrial carbon projects from bad ones.  Such an approach puts the climate movement into a reactive role just when climate advocates need to be the ones who plan the energy transition. Taking a wider-strategy approach to CCS will take patience. It will require building broader coalitions and organizing in rural areas where a lot of decarbonization needs to happen. It will be challenging—but the cost of being absorbed by the CCS distraction is not one that the movement can afford.

Holly Jean Buck is an assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University at Buffalo and the author of Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero is Not Enough (Verso, 2021).