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View of the Tesoro Anacortes oil refinery in Skagit County, Washington on January 15, 2017. (Photo: Linda, Fortuna future/Flickr/cc)

Dangerous Thinking: Carbon Capture Technology Won't Solve Our Emissions Problems

Pennsylvania and other places want to push forward on carbon removal plans, but there's little evidence for their impact.

The world is processing the dire warnings in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report: We are on a path to see global temperature rise to surpass the 2-degree threshold, bringing more intense heat waves, droughts, and sea-level rise—unless we shift rapidly away from fossil fuels. And the climate movement is grappling with both a sense of urgency and profound disappointment with the Biden administration. It was bad enough that the administration backed a bipartisan infrastructure proposal that jettisoned many key clean energy provisions, but it's even worse that the infrastructure plan includes billions of dollars in new fossil fuel subsidies.

That spending would support "carbon capture," a category of technologies that are misleadingly categorized as climate-friendly. State agencies and lawmakers are making sure that Pennsylvania positions itself as a "carbon capture hub," which means fitting existing power plants with technology to capture emissions, along with miles of new carbon dioxide pipelines and underground storage facilities in western parts of the state. There is even a plan to build a new "zero emissions" coal-fired power plant, thanks to the magic of carbon capture.

Any climate plan that relies on carbon capture is a foolish bet. Unfortunately, right now it is one the White House seems enthusiastic to make.

Proponents like to argue that this suite of technologies will help us reach our net-zero goals, envisioning a world where power plants can capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks—stopping the problem before it starts—or capturing CO2 from the atmosphere (what's known as direct air capture). Either option would require massive amounts of energy or water. Despite billions of dollars in investments already, there is little progress to show for it.

But it's just as revealing—and troubling—to see that the other goal is to actually increase our dependence on burning fossil fuels. When Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm recently touted the billions of dollars in new funding for carbon capture, she said it "will help the oil and gas sector to be able to ramp up production, but in a way that's clean." While that sounds nice, the catch is that there is no sign that you can make burning fossil fuels "clean."

After billions of dollars in public and private investments, there are no carbon capture success stories. The Petra Nova coal plant in Texas, once the poster child for CO2 removal, consistently underperformed before closing last year. Another high-profile example—the San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico, pushed as the largest capture project in the world—may meet a similar fate.

Look beyond these examples and you find more bad news. A 2020 review of scientific research found that popular carbon capture methods have actually put more CO2 into the atmosphere than they have removed. "Successful" capture projects exist at facilities where the carbon is injected into existing wells to extract more oil, known as "enhanced oil recovery." If you think that doubling down on fossil fuels is an effective climate solution, the planet begs to differ.

Even assuming these burgeoning capture projects are ever successful, their practical effects would be extremely limited. The Energy Department recently announced $12 million to fund "direct air capture" projects, with a goal to remove 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. To put this in perspective, the largest corporate polluter in 2018 was responsible for releasing 119 million tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. And expanding these technologies would present other insurmountable problems: Removing one billion tons of carbon emissions (a fraction of our country's yearly total) through direct air capture would require nearly the entire electricity output of the United States.

It's not hard to see why swooning over carbon capture has been a bipartisan enterprise. There's an unmistakable appeal to the idea that someday, somehow, we might bottle up climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, install this technology on fossil fuel infrastructure, dust off our hands, and move on.

But this kind of wishful thinking is dangerous. Counting on carbon capture's effectiveness squanders the opportunity to enact stronger measures (a phenomenon known as "mitigation deterrence"). In other words, we would extend the fossil fuel era instead of ending it, all while telling ourselves that we are doing the right thing. So long as techno-futurists, fossil fuel companies, and government officials are enraptured by carbon capture, there will be less pressure to stop climate pollution by putting an end to drilling and fracking.

The IPCC report is telling us—in no uncertain terms—that the worst-case climate scenarios are looming, and things are all but guaranteed to get worse before they get better. The energy industry's advertisements promise us an easy fix: No need to transform these systems entirely when we can just capture the bad stuff and bury it. Any climate plan that relies on carbon capture is a foolish bet. Unfortunately, right now it is one the White House seems enthusiastic to make.

© 2021 Philadelphia Inquirer
Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Action. She has worked extensively on energy, food, water and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Experienced in developing policy positions and legislative strategies, she is also a skilled and accomplished organizer, having lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans.

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