Carbon Capture and Storage Is No Silver Bullet

By Randi Pokladnik

The bipartisan infrastructure package earmarks more than $8.58 billion for carbon capture and removal. Unfortunately, carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) is not the silver bullet needed to accomplish that task.

CCS is the capture and utilization or storage of carbon dioxide emissions from coal and natural gas power plants and other industrial sources.  The captured CO2 is then stored or used in another application; usually enhanced oil recovery (EOR).  EOR is the injection of carbon dioxide into low producing oil fields in order to stimulate more oil production. 

Section 45Q of the tax code allows energy companies to get a tax credit of $50 per ton of captured CO2 but “HR 2633, introduced by Republican Rep. David Schweikert (AZ), would amend the tax code to bump the credit to $85 per ton for carbon captured and stored, $50 for carbon captured and used.”  

In addition to tax credits, CCS research projects received $110 million in 2019, $72 million in 2020 and $75 million in 2021 from the Department of Energy. The taxpayers’ money could be used for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.

It’s not surprising that some of the biggest proponents of this technology, like Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil, see CCS as a “win-win” situation. It allows them to paint themselves “green” while continuing to extract more fossil fuels.  These companies are major players in the Carbon Capture Coalition and the Global Carbon Capture Institute both of which are pitching the technology to local, state and federal political entities. 

CCS only addresses the carbon dioxide emissions from stack gases; not additional emissions from transportation of equipment, construction of a CCS facility and the emissions from the CCS facility itself. The commercial methods being incentivized by governments are net CO2 additive: CO2 emissions exceed removals.

Captured CO2 needs to be transported to areas of utilization, requiring the construction of a massive pipeline system. Biden’s Council on Environmental Quality said a CCS system that could meet a goal of net zero emissions by 2050 would require a pipeline system of close to 68,000 miles at a cost of $230 billion.

Because the carbon dioxide is under high pressures and temperatures, these pipelines must have thicker walls and be more corrosion resistant than conventional oil and gas pipelines. Last year an explosion in Satartia, Mississippi caused “a pipeline carrying compressed carbon dioxide to rupture, engulfing the small town in a green haze, and leaving many residents convulsing, confused, or unconscious.” In high concentrations like those in pipelines, carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant. 

Carbon dioxide injected into rock strata can also contaminate ground and surface water. The CO2 forms carbonic acid which can leach out dangerous components in the rock such as uranium and barium metals.  In many cases CCS facilities greatly increase the amount of water needed for power plants. In addition to using more water, power plants fitted with CCS need more energy to power the CCS portion of the facility, thus requiring, for example, 30% more coal to produce the same amount of power.

A major factor when considering CCS is how many plants would be needed meaningfully reduce in emissions. There are only 26 plants in operation globally with a capacity of 39 million tons of CO2 per year. This is about 0.1 percent of annual global emissions from fossil fuels.  “Current models suggest we’re going to need to remove 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050, and by the end of the century that number needs to double to 20 gigatons per year,” says Jane Zelikova, a climate scientist at the University of Wyoming. 

We cannot incorporate CCS at a large enough scale to remove enough CO2 to make a dent in our emissions. While this would be true even were the plants operating as advertised, they aren’t performing as promised.  Many of the current CCS projects are failing to remove the promised amounts of CO2. A recentarticle in the Guardian reported that the largest CCS project, the three-billion-dollar Chevron Australia’s Gorgon, was a dismal failure.  Projected to capture and bury 80 percent of emissions from a liquefied natural gas project, it only reached 40 percent. The Texas Petra Nova coal plant received $190 million to harness CO2 emissions from a Texas coal plant. The plant “suffered chronic mechanical problems and routinely missed its targets before it was shut down.” 

The most effective way to deal with emissions of CO2 is to prevent them from ever being created rather than trying to pluck them haphazardly from the air or smokestacks. There is no silver bullet to solve the crisis we are in; we simply must move away from fossil fuels.

Unlike coal and gas, which require the mining or extraction of fuels, sunshine and wind are free. A 2020 Lazard analysis of energy reported that the lifetime costs of a megawatt per hour of power (including subsidies) is: $31 solar, $26 for wind, $41 for coal and $28 for gas. CCS is just a fossil-fuel-backed distraction that is wasting time and taxpayer money.

Randi Pokladnik is a retired research chemist and educator, who was born and raised in the Ohio River Valley.  She has an undergraduate degree in chemistry, and a masters and PhD in Environmental Studies.