Seduced Pt. II: Looking under Carbon Capture & Sequestration’s oily hood

Touted as a key component within many emerging national net-zero emissions strategies, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) received a huge credibility boost from several recent IPCC and IEA studies. But CCS’ greatest advantage is that it enables oil majors to have a market in an otherwise decarbonized economy. What it doesn’t do is stop the pollution stream. Framed as a climate solution, in fact most current and planned projects use the CO2 they capture to produce more fossil fuels through various enhanced oil recovery (EOR) schemes. As part of an ongoing series deconstructing CCS, L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews some recent history.

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts*

In late September 2019, as millions of environmental activists flooded the streets of cities worldwide demanding more action, executives from a group of 13 oil majors including Exxon Mobil, Chevron and BP met in New York during the UN-sponsored Climate Action Summit to chart out a plan to promote investments in carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). After decades of retarding renewable energy’s growth and muddying the public’s understanding of climate science, they’d realized these tactics wouldn’t work much longer.

Accounting for over 32% of global oil and gas production, the group, known as the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), had arranged a series of high-level meetings with politicians, media-executives and powerbrokers to frame CCS as a climate change solution and develop public policies to subsidize its global deployment.

As the climate summit concluded, the OGCI signed a declaration of collaboration with various energy ministers and stakeholders committing to support CCS expansion.

In a statement released to the media, OGCI promised to double the amount of CO2 stored globally by 2030 while taking steps to reduce methane emissions and increase energy efficiency. Moreover, they said, the new wave of CCS facilities could be scaled “to more efficiently trap large amounts of carbon released by facilities such as power plants, which could then be used in oil recovery and, ultimately stored – thus, removing it from the atmosphere.”

Going forward, the group promised to work with other international oil and gas producers to swiftly expand CCS from beyond the United States, where the majority of operations continue to exist, to the United Kingdom, Norway, the Netherlands, and China.

Less than a month later, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report stating CCS technology would be necessary in most pathways limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, and that CCS could achieve 13% of the world’s necessary emission reductions by 2050.

Since then, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) has also published several reports hailing CCS and CCUS (U = Utilization, code for EOR). The latest, published in September 2020, extols it as “a key pillar of efforts to put the world on the path to net-zero emissions.”

 Breaking it down

 As of the beginning of December 2020, there are 26 operating CCS facilities worldwide (12 in the US and four in Canada), with a combined capacity to sequester some 40 million tons annually according to the Global CCS Institute.

Including two others that have suspended operation, all but seven of these are attached to fossil or synthetic gas processing plants, oil refineries, ethanol production or coal-fired power generation. That is, these CCS plants capture a portion of the emissions generated in these highly polluting industrial facilities.

However, of these 28 CCS operations, all but six “store” or use the CO2 they’ve captured to actually produce more oil through EOR.

Worse, perhaps half of this injected CO2 stream returns to the surface along with newly mined oil (more on this to come).

In the end, only a tiny fraction of all industrially captured carbon is rendered harmless through permanent geologic storage.

Future-Gen to Never-Gen

To get a sense of how CCS was framed as a climate solution, it’s necessary to go back to the 2000s.

At the time, attaching CCS to existing power plants was a key part of US President George W. Bush’s climate policy which favored funding the development of technological solutions enabling fossil fuels a future. The centerpiece was the $1.5 billion FutureGen project, envisioned as an international demonstration center giving coal and gas plant operators worldwide a test-bed to develop and improve CCS technologies.

But late into Bush’s second term, with little more than expensive modeling done, the project’s Board deadlocked around where to actually start digging. Two sites became finalists in something like an energy-nerd’s bachelorette contest. The first, located in Texas’ Permian, would capture some of CO2 from a nearby coal plant and use it for EOR. This was the option favored by oil and gas producers.

The other, favored by many electric utilities, relied on a complex “clean coal” Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) system that would first turn coal into gas, thus better enabling carbon capture. It would also combine and test other decarbonization solutions including the production of hydrogen. At the back end, FutureGen’s units would then pump waste CO2 thousands of meters underground into deep salt caverns where it would merge harmlessly with existing geology.

When the Board chose for Illinois, Bush promptly cancelled the project. But that wasn’t the end of it.

In his first term, Obama’s Department of Energy (DOE) gave $400 million in funds supposed to help Americans recover from the Great Recession to develop the Texas Clean Energy Project, essentially the Permian-EOR version of FutureGen.

After receiving almost $815 million and still facing estimated construction costs that had ballooned to almost $4 billion, just a few months ahead of 2016’s elections, the DOE walked away without any carbon actually being sequestered, ending the project.

Back in Illinois, Obama’s DOE had also decided to fund another CCS project, this time attached to an ethanol plant owned by agribusiness giant, Archer Daniels Midland. But as a new analysis published by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting reveals, after over $400 million spent, not only has the project failed to come close to capturing anywhere near its planned 1 million metric tons of CO2, but as of the end of 2019, ADM’s overall CO2 emissions have actually increased.

Overall, since 2010, the DOE has awarded more than $5 billion to various CCS projects, far more than any other national or subnational entity—with very little captured carbon to show for it. “The United States is the only country with major investments in the technologies needed to reduce CO2 emissions from the world’s coal-fueled and natural gas-fueled electricity fleet and industrial sources,” said DOE spokesperson Marc Willis. These investments will one day enable them to “operate at, or near, carbon-neutral levels.”

At the end of the day, it is vital to see CCS for what it is: a desperate attempt to maintain the status quo propagated by those with vested interests within the fossil fuels industry itself. Oil majors are betting state-supported CCS will provide the smokescreen to keep them in the black.

We’ll dive deeper in part III of the Seduction series.


L. Michael Buchsbaum

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.

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