In its current state, carbon capture is another false promise when it comes to addressing the urgent need to decrease carbon dioxide emissions. The very industry that is a main contributor to climate change can now profit from tax breaks and government funding being directed at Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) projects. A 2019 report by the Center for International Environmental Law, “Fuel to Fire,” states, “It is not surprising that the fossil fuel industry has invested and is investing heavily in the technologies that would render a transition from fossil fuels less urgent.” Carbon capture is one of those technologies.
First used in 1972 in Chevron’s Terrell Natural Gas plant in Texas, carbon capture can remove carbon dioxide from exhaust fumes of industrial facilities such as coal and gas power plants or from the surrounding air. There are several techniques that have been used to capture CO2. These include: absorbing it with a sponge-like material; separating it with membranes; or cooling and condensing it using a cryogenic process. These processes all require high energy inputs, and once captured, the carbon dioxide is either stored or used. Storage involves the gas being transported to locations where it is injected deep underground into saline deposits or rock strata.
Small amounts of carbon dioxide have been used as a feedstock for chemicals or fuels, to distill and carbonate beverages, or for use in greenhouses to help promote plant growth. Once again there are substantial costs involved to transport the gas, and carbon dioxide captured this way can quickly re-enter the atmosphere. According to a recent paper in Nature Climate Change, “the tonnage of CO2 humanity emits simply dwarfs the tonnage of carbon-based products it consumes.”
The majority of carbon dioxide from CCS is used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). During this procedure, pressurized CO2 is pumped into old oil field wells to help force out any remaining oil deposits. The majority of the world’s 21 large-scale CCS plants are located in the USA and Canada, and all but five sell or send their carbon dioxide to facilities involved in enhanced oil recovery. The carbon dioxide removed by power plants can be sold to other companies that use it to help “bolster” production of older oil fields.
There are many economic, social, and environmental problems associated with using CCS for oil recovery. Using the carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery does not guarantee the gas is permanently removed from the atmosphere. Eventually it is released back to the atmosphere as it leaks from the wells and fissures. Additionally, it enables more oil to be extracted thus continuing our reliance on fossil fuels and contributing to climate change.
In the CIEL report “Fuel to Fire,” Exxon stated that it had a working interest in one quarter of the world’s total carbon capture and storage (CCS) capacity, and Shell is involved with four current CCS projects. Chevron has invested $75 million in CCS research in the past ten years, while BP is a current sponsor of the CO2 Capture Project. There are economic incentives that are encouraging fossil fuel industries to champion the use of CCS. These include government programs as well as tax incentives.
In 2008, a program was set up to give tax credits to companies using CCS. According to section 45 Q of the tax code, companies could get tax credits for capturing carbon dioxide and doing one of three things with it: dispose of it in an underground secure geological site, use it for enhanced oil recovery, or use it in a commercial process. In 2018, the tax credits for CCS were raised to $50 per metric ton of CO2 from the previous $20 per ton, and credits for carbon dioxide used in EOR were raised from $20 to $35 per ton.
Estimates based on IRS records show that Exxon may have claimed hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits using this law. There is a requirement that companies claiming the tax credit also commit to a monitoring program through the EPA. A new industry group, Energy Advance Center, which represents companies like Exxon, have lobbied to do away with monitoring programs that would ensure CCS emissions did not escape back into the atmosphere.
Additionally, CCS research projects have received substantial amounts of government funding. According to the Department of Energy, CCS research projects received $110 million in 2019, $72 million in 2020, and as of April of 2021 received $75 million.
Recently, U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Capito introduced legislation to augment the tax credits for CCS under 45Q and 48A, tax credits for coal companies using CCS. One facet of the bill would grant the same tax treatment to CCS as is currently offered to wind and solar projects. It would also allow for direct payments of carbon capture credits. No surprise that many of the Carbon Capture Utilization and Tax Credit Amendment Act supporters are from states heavily influenced by the fossil fuel industry (West Virginia, Wyoming and North Dakota).
Finally, there are issues of safety involved in CCS. Once the carbon dioxide is captured it can be used or stored but it also must be transported. This involves pipelines. In 2019, in Yazo, Miss., a 24-inch carbon-dioxide containing underground pipeline ruptured. Over 300 people were evacuated and 46 people were treated at hospitals. The concentration of carbon dioxide was high enough to cause gas-powered car engines to stop. First responders said some people were unconscious while others wandered around like zombies.
Unlike solar and wind energy, which according to Clean Technica are “roughly displacing 35 times as much CO2 every year as the complete global history of CCS,” carbon capture technology is still in the early stages of development. It is not ready to be used in the scale necessary to curtail the climate crisis. It has however become a diversion used by industry and governments to avoid doing what needs to be done to actually address the climate crisis in a timely way.
Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in Environmental Studies and is certified in Hazardous Materials Regulations.