Carbon Capture — Big Oil’s bogus response to global warming

Carbon Capture cartoon
Carbon Capture. Image credit: Pilita Clark, Financial Times, Sept. 9, 2015

The Oil & Gas Industry wants us to keep on burning fossil fuels, come hell or high sea level. To divert attention from that sorry objective, the industry is promoting a techno-fix that policymakers and investors can get behind — it’s called Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS  for short. It’s a ruse, a scam. CCS won’t change industry’s behaviour, won’t cause emissions to drop.

Last April, a group of U.S. Senators — 8 Democrats, 4 Republicans — sent a letter to the Senate appropriations committee requesting “robust funding” to develop carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies “that will address COemissions from coal, natural gas, and industrial facilities.” The letter contains a mixture of false statements, dubious claims, and baloney. Examples follow:

▲ The Senators claim that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified CCUS as “a critical component of the portfolio of energy technologies needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.” The claim is false. Here are the facts:

The Paris Climate Agreement, signed Dec. 2015 by 95 countries, set a goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” Global average temperature has already exceeded 1.0°C. Last year, the IPCC prepared a special report on the impacts of global warming to 1.5°C and on the CO2 emissions pathways that could limit warming to that temperature. Here’s what the report’s ‘Summary for Policymakers’ says  in its single statement (item C.2.2) about the use of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS):

In 1.5°C pathways with no or limited overshoot, renewables are projected to supply 70–85% of electricity in 2050. . . . [T]he use of CCS would allow the electricity generation share [from] gas to be approximately 8% (3–11%) of global electricity in 2050, while the use of coal . . . would be reduced to close to 0%.

In other words, the IPCC views the use of CCS, not as a critical component of efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, but as a bit player, and not even an essential bit player. What the IPCC does predict is that ‘natural’ carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques, such as reforestation and soil carbon sequestration, will play the major roles.

The Senators state that “Like the wind and solar industries, a combination of federal incentives such as tax credits and federal funding for research, development, and demonstration, will be needed to improve [carbon capture] technology so that it can be cost-competitive with other forms of low COemitting technologies.”

Here the Senators make the absurd implication that energy from fossil fuels  can be made cost-competitive with energy from renewables (solar, wind) by throwing money into carbon capture research. The fact is, energy from fossil fuels cannot compete with energy from renewable today; adding carbon capture technology — no matter how well researched — to fossil fuel exhaust systems, will result in energy that is even less competitive tomorrow. No amount of funding will change that certainty.

▲ The Senators state that “Innovators across the United States are already developing a wide range of CCUS technologies that can improve the efficiency of electricity generation and utilize carbon dioxide emitted by power plants and other sources for more efficient resource development and valuable products, such as algae-derived chemicals, plastics, and fuels.”

Here the Senators are trying, but failing, to show that CCS can pay for itself. The reference to “more efficient resource development” points to ‘enhanced oil recovery’, a process in which captured CO2 is injected into existing wells to force more oil out of the ground. When the recovered oil is burned, it releases as much or more CO2 into the atmosphere as was captured in the first place. The process has nothing to do with true carbon storage, nor with serious efforts to reduce global warming CO2 emissions.

As for the reference to “valuable products”, the world is awash in chemicals, plastics, and fuels, all derived from fossil carbon feed stock (oil, gas, coal). When that fossil carbon feed stock is burned, its carbon is released into the air. The claim that that same carbon (captured from the emissions) can form the basis for new or different products, makes no sense.

▲ The Senators claim that “Investment in carbon utilization technologies will transform carbon dioxide into an economic resource, lower the cost of reducing emissions, create jobs, save consumers money, and safeguard our environment.”

At least the part about jobs is true. Scientists will work on anything, no matter how nutty the project, just so long as they get paid to do it.

Photo of U.S. Senate building
U.S. Senate. Image: Senate.gov

The Senators’ letter is dated April 4, 2019 and signed by Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Angus King (I- Maine), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

If the Senators had actually read the IPCC’s 2018 special report’s ‘Summary for Policymakers’, they would have discovered that holding global average temperature to 1.5°C by 2050 requires action on restricting CO2 emissions NOW.  Pushing CCS technology on behalf of the fossil fuel industry will not do the trick. Here’s what the ‘Summary for Policymakers’ says on the matter:

Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) [e.g., reforestation] can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030 (item D.1).

The lower the emissions in 2030, the lower the challenge in limiting global warming to 1.5°C after 2030 with no or limited overshoot. The challenges from delayed actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions include the risk of cost escalation, lock-in in carbon-emitting infrastructure, stranded assets, and reduced flexibility in future response options in the medium to long term (item D.3).

In other words: ignore the carbon capture ruse, focus instead on reducing fossil fuel production. That’s the real challenge for policymakers. Are they up to it?

Comments welcome