Seduced: Climate moderates worldwide are getting sold on big oil’s carbon capture fantasies 

The last few months have seen a rivulet of announcements around proposed carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) plans. Long trumpeted by the fossil fuels industry and given a recent boost by the scientists at the EIA and IPCC, it has become a favored climate change solution by policymakers in the EU, Johnson’s UK and plays a key role in the new Biden Administration energy transition strategies. CCS is also a key component within various envisioned “clean” hydrogen and net-carbon neutral schemes. But many fear that depending on CCS will only anchor fossil energy polluters long into the future. The first of a three-part series, L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews some of the fundamentals and current status of carbon capture projects worldwide.

Scientific and Economic Approval

Though in an ideal world, fossil fuels would be phased out, climate moderates argue that instead of just quickly transitioning to a 100% green renewable system, we should additionally focus on cleaning up existing energy production systems. The current CCS concept evolved out of the “Clean Coal” argument which promised coal could be kept viable by safely trapping it’s carbon emissions underground.

Similarly, the new framing of CCS is that it will help “clean” hydrogen decarbonize the hardest 30% of the economy like the steel and cement sectors. Subsidies designed to expand it are already being sold to lawmakers worldwide as “climate money,” and will, in the end, inevitably divert resources away from decarbonizing the first 70% of the economy with wind and solar.

Industry claims CCS is necessary for meeting global net-zero carbon goals. Their case was given a huge assist in October 2019 by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) when they called for using the technology to achieve 13% of the world’s necessary emission reductions by 2050.

This endorsement runs parallel with recent modeling by the Paris-based International Energy Agency that also provides much of the political cover for depending on CCS to reduce industrial emissions.

Where CCS is today

As of November 2020, CCS is included in 15 of 19 submitted climate strategies from the European Union and the following individual countries: Canada, Czechia, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, Singapore, Slovakia, Ukraine, UK and the US. Other nations are quickly developing plans, partially as a well to get into the subsidy cue.

Though dozens of new projects are bulging construction pipelines only 26 commercial CCS facilities are globally in operation and only able to capture about 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year according to a report published on December 1 by the Global CCS Institute.

Getting to “net” zero emissions

Overall, the Global CCS Institute’s database shows some 60 facilities in various stages of development worldwide. However these and the handful now in operation are paltry compared to what the IEA, IPCC and other groups say will be needed in order to meet the eventual Paris climate targets. Getting anywhere near a fossil fuel economy saved by CCS would require the construction of an incredible 70 to 100 more facilities a year for the next 30 years.

These CO2 capture and storage facilities will be constructed to prevent emissions from across a wide variety of sectors: heavy industry, including cement, steel, chemicals and other core industrial processes; ethanol and fertilizer production and; refining and fossil gas processing. CCS will also be central to plastic production, “blue” hydrogen and gas and coal-fired electricity power generation.

The IEA estimates that the evolving global carbon capture industry will need to scale-up to over 2,000 facilities capturing 2.8 gigatons of CO2 per year to limit warming to 2°C. To meet the more ambitious 1.5°C scenario, the IPCC estimates that 10 gigatons of CO2 per year must be captured.

Power Suckers

Not surprisingly, CCS is really expensive, ranging between $40 and $232 a ton depending on the process, according to a European Union analysis.

Moreover, it requires even more energy to operate: more power is required to strip and capture the CO2 out of the emissions stream; more to ship and transport it; and more still to inject the CO2 pollution deep underground.

According to Tomas Baxter, Senior Lecturer of Chemical Engineering at the University of Aberdeen, “for a gas-fired power station, you typically have to burn 16% more gas to provide the capture power. Not only this, you end up with a 16% increase in emissions of other serious air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Concerns have also been expressed about the potential health effects of the amine solvent used in the carbon capture.”

Then comes the carbon built into additional processing, transport and storage for both the fossil gas coming in, and the pipeline costs of the CO2 itself. This is on top of the amounts of energy needed to frack or drill for that gas in the first place.

Another uncertainty exists around whether or not that CO2 might eventually escape once its supposedly “sequestered.” Though industry promises that won’t happen, “industry” in this case is oil and gas—what haven’t they spilled over the last century? With hundreds of vast new complex facilities rapidly coming online, we know “accidents” will happen.

How to make the money

Another central question surrounding CCS are the economics. What’s the case for burying carbon?

So far the way CCS works for investors is if developers receive massive subsidies or tax breaks to construct the plants and infrastructure. The fossil fuels industry and their partners are the ones largely supporting CCS—indeed ExxonMobil proudly boasts they are the world leader!

The sector looks to benefit from a future carbon sequestration market by being paid to accept and “dispose” of carbon pollution at less than current carbon tax rates, or being paid through direct tax credits or additional government support or a mixture of all the above. Developers and operators can also benefit from re-utilizing that captured carbon as well (CCUS).

The American Way

One way to understand CCS is to look at the two commonalities most shared by the majority of today’s operating commercial projects.

Most make money through one of many “EOR” techniques, essentially using incidentally or secondarily sourced carbon to re-pressurize declining oil and gas fields and squeeze out more crude.

And half of the facilities are located in the United States.

CCS enjoys something in the US shared very seldom these days: bi-partisan support. In 2020 the US Congress agreed to new CCS subsidies for developers in the form of expanded tax credits. The enlarged 45Q credit now give a $35 bonus for each metric ton of carbon dioxide captured and stored within an existing oil deposit (EOR) or $50 for storage within other geologic formations. Since subsidies expire at the end of 2023, it’s no surprise that 12 new projects were introduced over the past year.

Barely capable of supporting a Covid-ravaged, broke and starving public, Congress supporting subsidies for big oil is still the American way.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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