Seduction Pt III: Carbon Capture’s expensive failure to capture carbon

As many nations develop net-zero carbon plans both to honor the Paris Climate Agreement and address the climate crisis, many are leaning heavily upon unproven and misunderstood Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technologies. Despite billions of dollars spent in research and development, it’s unclear how much environmental progress is actually achieved by CCS. Not only is there little accurate data around how much carbon has really been buried, but there’s reason to believe CCS will actually increase overall greenhouse gas emissions. In the third part of his “Seduced by CCS” series, L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews CCS’ math and how utilizing it to produce more oil only makes things worse.

Where CCS is today

As of December 2020, according to the Global CCS Institute’s new report, there are 28 operating CCS facilities worldwide with a combined total capacity to sequester 40 million tons of CO2 annually. Though at least two of these, including the celebrated Terra Nova Sequestration plant in Texas, have suspended their operations.

Overall, 22 of these facilities use the carbon they capture for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) operations. Not unsurprisingly, CCS remains concentrated in North America: half of all operating plants are located in the US, including the two largest; four others are in Canada. The two biggest operations outside the US are Brazil’s Petrobas gas processing plant and Chevron’s Gorgon gas processing plant in Australia (with Exxon and Shell as partners).

No question that interest in CCS is high. Since December 2019, 17 new commercial CCS facilities have entered the project pipeline, including 12 in the US, according to the CCS Institute. In total, they list 65 “commercial” CCS facilities operating, under construction or in some stage of development worldwide.

Shute-ing carbon

Boasting responsibility for capturing 20% of all carbon sequestered worldwide, ExxonMobil claims global leadership in CCS experience. Since the mid-80s, they have been operating the world’s largest facility, the Shute Creek Gas Processing plant, which on paper has a capacity to bury approximately 7 million tons of CO2 per year.

Located in southwestern Wyoming, it can capture approximately 365 million cubic feet per day (Mcfd) of CO2 which Exxon brags is equivalent to removing more than 1.5 million cars off the road.

However, Schute Creek’s CO2 source is the “waste” product created by refining raw fossil gas mined nearby. As part of Exxon’s process, CO2 is removed and separated, rendering the gas usable for utilities. The captured CO2 is then transported in pipelines owned by Exxon, Occidental and ChevronTexaco for use in various regional EOR operations.

Doing the carbon math

Long hailed as a model CCS plant, though Schute Creek has no doubt captured and sequestered many millions of tons of CO2, it’s not at all clear if it or other similar plants have actually created any overall carbon savings. And indeed, burying carbon was never the point.

Worldwide there are few accurate figures as to how much CO2 was and remains buried by CCS operations. Moreover, reported industry figures rarely estimate the pollutants stemming from the additional fuels used to power sequestration machinery, nor do they accurately count how much CO2 eventually slips into the atmosphere after burial.

In a recent paper, Mark Z Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, demonstrates that far from being carbon pollution reducers, CCS operations actually increase climate harm over time—something industry is well aware of.

Though carbon capture technologies are often promoted as enabling a power plant or facility to capture 85% to 90% of its exhausted CO2, several factors actually cause the overall emissions from a CCS-equipped plant to increase, simultaneous with a rise in other human and planetary health-affecting pollutants.

Firstly, a CCS-equipped facility needs to produce 25% to 50% more energy to run its special gear compared to non-CCS facilities. This in turn requires 25% to 50% more fuel. But the installed CCS equipment doesn’t capture any of the upstream emissions from the mining, transportation, or the initial processing of the additional fossil fuels used to run it. Nor does CCS address the increase to air pollution associated from its burning. Instead, these point-source pollutants simply increase given these additional fuel requirements.

Secondly, on the back end, regardless of how much CO2 is initially captured, transported and buried, once it goes underground, the amount of sequestered CO2 that leaks increases over time at rates that vary among geological formations. Even in the most ideal situations, such as burial thousands of meters underground in saline caverns, there will be some leakage over thousands of years.

But the majority of the CO2 now being sequestered is used to increase oil and gas production in various EOR operations. Given that it’s highly pressurized, this CO2 once underground will push back against the strata above it, and will take advantage of whatever horizontal and vertical fractures exist within the surrounding rocks to escape back into the atmosphere. Additionally, because CO2 is an acid, it also weathers the surrounding rocks over time, again helping it to escape.

Because most CCS-equipped plants are really EOR operations, they are located or are sending their CO2 into operating oil and gas fields, themselves punctuated by thousands of wells and fractures from drilling and production. Across the US and Canada, as well as worldwide, there are millions of abandoned, uncapped oil and gas wells many of which are already leaking various gasses (including methane) without any plans for mitigation or control. So there are lots of avenues for that CO2 to begin escaping. And what’s more: there is little to no monitoring of this leakage.

Lacking in experience

Indeed CCS was never conceived of, nor have most operations been built, with any sort of long-term climate benefit in mind. Moreover, only a tiny percentage of existing CCS facilities have been directly attached to fossil fuel-fired power plants. What little experience industry has shows that CCS is incredibly expensive.

The world’s first operating electric power plant with CCU (U=utilization) equipment was the Boundary Dam station in Saskatchewan, Canada, which beginning in October 2014 has been operating the gear on only one of it’s coal units. The initial cost of this retrofit project was $1.5 billion, which breaks down to an eye-popping $13.6 million per MW for a 110 MW turbine—partially paid for with hundreds of millions in grant money from the Canadian government. All of which is on top of the original cost of constructing the multi-unit coal plant itself.

With a capacity to capture one million tons of CO2/y, since 2016, the CCU equipment has on average only operated 40% of the time due to various design and performance problems. Nevertheless, over the last six years, half of this stream has been sold for EOR operations in nearby gas fields. The other half is simply released into the atmosphere.

Not so super Nova

Boundary at least is still in operation—unlike the second-ever CCU equipped power plant (and so far the first and only one in the US): the Petra Nova Carbon Capture project. We’ll bring you up to date on this debacle along with how Chevron letting the Gorgon loose in Australia has blown that nation’s carbon budget in the next Seduction.


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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