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The Problem with Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Leaders around the world, including PA Governor, Tom Wolf have been pushing for investments in Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technology. CCS is a technology that pulls carbon out of the air, usually when it is released at facilities like power plants, and buries it underground to keep it from reaching the atmosphere. Some have claimed that this is a miracle technology that will save us from climate change. Yet, there is little support for this staggering claim.

Captured carbon is most often used to directly further the production of fossil fuels from oil and gas fields while providing an overall excuse that our continued reliance on fossil fuels is ok, because CCS will be here to save us. We cannot allow the promise of future carbon reduction to continue to prolong our reliance on technologies that are already causing devastating consequences to our environment. 

As mentioned before, CCS is a technology that takes already-released carbon out of the air and transports it to a location where it can be sequestered and kept out of the atmosphere. According to the Global CCS Institute, as of 2019, global CCS capacity is at around 40 million metric tons of CO2 per year. This is only a drop in the bucket when put in the context of the over 36 billion tons a year that is currently being emitted. CCS promises big results in cutting emissions. One facility in Texas for example, claims that over a 3-year period between 2016 and 2019 it successfully sequestered 99.08% of carbon emissions, equal to 3,831,818 short tons of CO2. However, in this facility, as in many others, captured carbon is often used to promote more fossil fuel production elsewhere. In reality this means that emissions will be higher as a result of the carbon that was captured. 

Background on CCS

There are three types of carbon capture technologies that are used to capture the carbon at its source. The most common, particularly in existing power plants, is post combustion carbon capture, where the CO2 is separated from the exhaust that results from the combustion process. Then there is pre-combustion carbon capture which is used in industrial processes but is still in the very early stages for power plants and it is cost prohibitive to try to retrofit an existing powerplant with the technology. In pre-combustion carbon capture, fuel is gasified allowing the CO2 to be separated. Lastly there is oxy-fuel combustion where the fuel is burned in an (almost) pure oxygen environment allowing the CO2 emissions to become more concentrated and thus easier to capture. After the CO2 is captured, it is compressed into a fluid, transported to a storage site, and then eventually injected underground where it can be kept long term to keep from reaching the atmosphere.

Early versions of Carbon capture technology actually date back to the 1920s, when it was used for separating CO2 that was found in natural gas reservoirs from the saleable methane. Since the 1970s, captured CO2 has been piped to oil fields to boost oil recovery in a process known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), leading to millions of tons of CO2 being piped into oil fields every year. Injecting CO2 for EOR can lead to 20-40% higher oil production in an oil field. Although the CO2 can be left there permanently to sequester it, the production of increased oil still leads to this method creating increased carbon emissions. CCS for the sake of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere to try to halt climate change gained prominence only in the first years of the new century. 

The Problem with CCS

The promise of CCS is dramatically overstated. CCS is not cost efficient. It is extremely expensive and thus cost prohibitive to apply to existing sources of pollution, so the only use case is to construct CCS facilities on new fossil fuel plants. We must stop constructing new fossil fuel plants. Not only are they dangerous, but it is not cost effective. It would be cheaper to construct new wind or solar than to invest in CCS.

Despite showing some early promise, according to the IEA, as of 2020, there were only 21 CCS facilities operating globally, with another 44 in various stages of development. While CCS may sound promising in concept, it very much remains to be seen whether it will be possible to develop the technology to a scale where it could actually make a significant difference in the climate crisis. It will certainly be extremely expensive, and will draw funds away from renewable energy technology. This could not only delay the construction of renewable energy that is already available but could also delay innovation into new, more advanced forms of clean, renewable energy. This means that we are investing in an unnecessary technology that could never come to fruition instead of trying to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels now with technology that is already ready to be deployed.

CCS in Pennsylvania

This has been demonstrated be true for Pennsylvania as well. Governor Wolf has announced that PA is joining other states to create a coalition to develop regional CCS infrastructure. Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development, Dennis Davin, has declared that “Carbon capture technologies provide a critical component to addressing our climate challenge.” In the announcement mentioned above, the administration shared literature that declares that “states are ready for Carbon Capture.” However, Governor Wolf’s own administration clearly seems to disagree.

As part of the permitting process for the proposed Renovo Energy Center, a gas fired power plant in Clinton County, the Department of Environmental Protection concluded that currently CCS is not commercially feasible and dismissed it as a way to reduce the emissions of the facility. Standing alone, this might be a plausible conclusion. However, if CCS is really as critical and available as the administration believes, why is the DEP dismissing it as unfeasible for one of the few plants that may have been able to invest in it in PA?  CCS is being presented as a pathway to continue moving along an environmentally destructive and carbon-heavy trajectory, while industrial operations are not actually being required to utilize the technology at all.  All of this further evidences, as discussed above, that, in reality, CCS is infeasible for any number of new or existing facilities. 

It is a serious cause for concern that CCS is being held up as a justification to continue to burn fossil fuels indefinitely (while seemingly avoiding the environmental catastrophe the data clearly show is coming) while in practice, CCS appears to be a costly (and cost ineffective) project with little hope of actually succeeding at the levels needed and a history of overpromising and underdelivering. The risks associated with prioritizing CCS include unfair competition for funding and subsidies that could be used for sustainable energy generation like wind or solar and also prolonging the life of aging coal and gas plants without actually achieving their goals of large scale carbon capture. So far CCS facilities continuously fallen short of their lofty claims, while the political powers that be are free to rest on their laurels after proclaiming that CCS is about to fix the climate crisis (and continue to throw good money after this inefficient, costly technology). 

Instead of averting climate disaster, CCS appears to be another step down our current path of climate destruction under a thin veil of progress. It remains to be seen if CCS will ever manage to create an effective band aid in the fight against climate change, but it is clear that as long as it prolongs our reliance on fossil fuels it will continue to be bring about harm.

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