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Carbon Capture is the main event, but is its promise a figment?
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Carbon Capture is the main event, but is its promise a figment?

Carbon Capture Takes Center Stage, But Is Its Promise an Illusion?


Pipe Dreams: The first in a series about whether capturing carbon is a solution to climate change or a dangerous distraction.

Despite Congress’s failure to pass his climate agenda, President Joe Biden managed to secure billions in federal spending to support one pillar of his platform, which is gaining more attention around the world: carbon capture.

In a major win for oil, coal, utilities and other industries, the federal government is poised to make its largest investment ever—more than $12 billion from last year’s infrastructure bill—in technologies that capture carbon dioxide from smokestack emissions or straight from the air.

ExxonMobil, Southern Company, and other oil fossil fuel titans They have encouraged carbon capture and storageAs a tool to reduce emissions, it has been used for more than a decade without any tangible results. 

Nevertheless, carbon capture is gaining acceptance from politicians of both parties, policy-experts, scientists, and even some environmentalists, who believe that the threat posed by climate change is so grave that every solution is required.

Supporters including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and one of the Senate’s most outspoken champions of climate action, point to modeling by academics and OthersThese technologies could play an important role in reducing emissions, especially from difficult-to-control sectors like shipping and heavy industry.

Their arguments have secured unprecedented spending on carbon capture in the last year, with GovernmentsIn Europe, Canada AustraliaSubsidies are also being committed to billions. Proponents believe that all this funding could prove transformative, and within a decade could help cut hundreds upon millions of tons of pollution each year.

Many progressive climate groups, such as and Greenpeace, claim that oil companies are using the technologies to distract from their plans to phase out their products. They argue that carbon capture and removal will only play a small role in reducing emissions. They warn that subsidies for these technologies will increase demand for fossil fuels and waste money that could be better spent replacing oil, coal, and gas.

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 that carbon capture and removal technologies may be critical to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), it also said that carbon removal in particular remains unproven and that relying on it posed “a major risk” to meeting climate targets. Carbon capture is a process that pulls carbon out of smokestacks. While carbon removal is a process that extracts the gas from air, it prevents the emission of greenhouse gases. 

2020 will be the U.S. Nearly 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions were recordedof carbon dioxide equivalent, as well as other pollutants like methane. Even optimistic projections According to some, carbon capture and removal technology will be able cut emissions.Only 250 million tonnes per year by 2035, which is about 4 percent of 2020’s emissions.  

“The Biden administration is really doubling down on the fossil economy and the false solutions that are entrenching that fossil economy in the name of addressing the climate crisis,” said Carroll Muffett, chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law, a nonprofit advocacy group. “I think that is a really significant failure of vision and failure of leadership.”

The infrastructure bill, for instance, will direct billions in dollars to produce electricity and hydrocarbons from fossil fuels. It will also include carbon capture and storage. Muffett and other experts point out that even without the extra cost of carbon capture equipment, wind and solar are already cheaper sources than fossil fuels for electricity.

The White House declined comment, but a spokesperson from its Council on Environmental Quality pointed out that a It was published last year in a report, which said that in order to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, “the United States will likely have to capture, transport, and permanently sequester significant quantities of carbon dioxide.”

Big Money for Carbon Capture and Removal

Last month, the council attempted to square carbon capture with another pillar of Biden’s climate plan, environmental justice, issuing guidanceThis led to the recommendation of including community input in the planning and approval process for all carbon capture projects. 

Environmental justice advocates have been among the harshest critics of carbon capture, saying it won’t address the many other forms of toxic pollution from producing and burning fossil fuels. The White House’s own Environmental Justice Advisory Council Included carbon capture and removalA list of the types of projects that would not be beneficial to communities.

These competing arguments will be put to the ultimate test as the first federal spending batches are set to begin flowing this year.

A Flood of Investment

Since the beginning of 2021, there have been at least 55 new carbon storage, removal, and capture projects announced in the last year. According to the Clean Air Task ForceAn environmental group. Some are highly speculational, such as a proposal from Exxon will build a $100 million carbon capture facility “hub” in the Houston area. Exxon announced Wednesday that the first hub project was approved. Attach carbon capture to the refinery complex at BaytownTexas, to produce low-emission hydrogen.

The company stated that the hub could only proceed if the government provided substantial funding and tax incentives equal to $100 per ton of carbon dioxide removed, which is twice the current rate.

North Dakota’s energy company purchased a coal power station that was due to close and said It would attach carbon capture to it to revive it technology.

Other projects are further along, particularly in sectors including ethanol and fertilizer production, where the costs of capturing carbon dioxide are lower because of the emissions’ high concentrations of the greenhouse gas.

Companies in the Midwest want to build a Network of carbon dioxide pipesTo connect corn ethanol plants to distribute the gas underground for injection. These proposals are driven by a federal credit that was increased in 2018 to give companies up to $50 per ton for carbon dioxide storage and capture.

The Biden administration has pledged its support. Its roadmap for reaching net-zero emissionsLast year’s mid-century report included a significant role to carbon capture and storage. It has also stated that it intends to increase the value of carbon capture tax credits. The Build Back Better legislation would have raisedThe value of carbon dioxide extracted from smokestacks is up to $85 per ton, and it can be removed directly from the atmosphere at $180 per ton

Despite the bill’s failure, the expanded credit for tax is supported by both parties, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va), the powerful chairman and chair of the Energy and Natural Resource Committee. 

The promise of a higher payout has encouraged a wave entrepreneurial activity and corporate investments in carbon removal. Microsoft, Stripe, United Airlines and other companies have announced millions of dollars in investments in carbon removal, and some have even bought carbon offsets from the first commercial “direct air capture” plant, which began operating last year in Iceland. Technology giants—and billionaire executives including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos—have been pouring money into start-ups. Elon Musk’s foundation is Funding a competition worth $100 millionFor efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere, including direct aerial capture, nature-based, and other approaches.

Occidental Petroleum said that it intends to This year, begin construction on a direct aerial captureTexas plant that will initially remove up to 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company could then pump gas into depleted oil reserves to increase their production. This can also store most of carbon dioxide underground.

The Last year, International Energy Agency said that the most “cost-effective and economically productive pathway” to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century required not only the rapid phase-out of coal power plants and an end to the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2035, but also substantial amounts of carbon capture and storage, with a more than 40-fold increase in the technology’s capacity by 2030, to nearly 1.7 billion metric tons. 

This huge leap would still be less than 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2021. It stated that direct air capture capacity would need to be 90 million metric tonnes by 2030, which is essentially zero today.

“We’re at a point when dealing with climate that we just have to look at all the options now,” said Shannon Heyck-Williams, senior director of climate and energy policy for the National Wildlife Federation. Her organization is part Carbon Capture Coalition which includes fossil fuel producers as well as utilities and unions. It has pressed for more federal funding.

John Thompson, the technology and markets director for the Clean Air Task Force (also a member of Carbon Capture Coalition), said that while the United States may have closed most of its coal plants it is building more. He said that China could adopt the technology if it was deployed domestically.

“If our retrofits in the United States shave five, 10 years off the time China takes to decarbonize, that’s globally significant,” he said. “We can’t bet the planet that those coal plants are going to close.”

Direct air capture is appealing because it could draw carbon dioxide away from the atmosphere. Such “negative emissions” will be necessary to meet climate targets, scientists say. Natural habitat restoration also pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, is cheaper and offers many other benefits. Many scientists disagree with this claim. New forests will have to compete for agricultural land. Storing carbon dioxide underground may be more reliable than storing it in trees. Trees are susceptible to fires, droughts, and other hazards.

Advocates of direct air capture argue that the technology could pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, achieving something that even the most strenuous efforts to reduce emissions could not.

“Carbon removal offers a way for those of us who have caused and benefited the most from climate change to clean up our mess, and that’s one of the things that to me makes it particularly attractive,” said David Morrow, director of research at the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University, though he added that direct air capture is only one of several approaches to removing carbon dioxide from the air. “Emissions abatement can’t do that. We can get to zero and the mess is still there.”

Expensive and energy-intensive

If these arguments sound convincing—who wouldn’t want to lock away emissions for good?—many environmental advocates say they gloss over an important detail. Despite decades worth of research and billions of dollar spent on carbon capture and removal, they remain very expensive and energy-intensive despite the fact that alternatives are cheaper.

Building new renewable energy projects is more affordable than building new fossil fuel power stations in many parts of the world. In some cases, it is even cheaper than continuing to run coal or natural gas plants. The math is worse if you spend hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars to create and operate a carbon capture network.

The Government Accountability Office reported in December that the Department of Energy had failed to meet its obligations under the Constitution. Six coal plants were given nearly $684 millionCarbon capture projects for 2010 to 2017, but only one was built and it ceased operation in 2020 because of high costs.

Critics claim that other technologies, such as electrification and the use of hydrogen made from renewable electricity, may be more cost-effective than carbon capture equipment in the industrial sector.

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Direct air capture is even more costly. The only commercial operation that captures carbon dioxide annually is capable of capturing 4,000 tons, which is a small amount when it comes down to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It was built partly in Iceland because it has abundant geothermal and emissions-free energy. 

This technology is generally dependent on large amounts of heat or power. Scaling it would also consume huge amounts of money and energy. Skeptics argue it would be cheaper and more efficient to simply feed this non-carbon-intensive energy into the grid to electrify society.

Large-scale carbon capture would require large-scale pipeline networks that rival existing oil pipelines. They would come with their own set of safety risks associated with leaks and ruptures—in large volumes, carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant.

There is also the pollution that comes with burning, transporting, and producing fossil fuels. This would be difficult to address using carbon capture equipment.

“That entire fossil fuel life-cycle pollution remains in place,” said Basav Sen, climate justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank. “You are in a sense losing an opportunity to deal with multiple environmental problems in the way you tackle greenhouse gas emissions.”

Only a down payment?

Carbon capture has failed to catch on commercially—there are only a few dozen plants operating globally, most of them in the United States. However, both supporters and opponents say that this might be changing due to government support.

The culmination of years-long lobbying by unions and industry for funding the infrastructure bill was the final result. One carbon capture bill was included in the infrastructure bill. Lobbying was conducted by dozens of companies and industry groups.OpenSecrets tracks money in politics. OpenSecrets also tracks money in the power, oil, and coal industries. In Exxon’s lobbying disclosures, carbon capture and storage was the only issue tied to the infrastructure law it reported discussing. According to an Inside Climate News analysis Exxon reported that it lobbied more on carbon capture than on any other issue in the last year.  

The total amount raised was more than $12Billion. This money will be used to fund large-scale demonstration projects that capture and store carbon dioxide. It will also finance infrastructure and pipelines that would connect it all. The Department of Energy, which will manage most of the money is required to fund at minimum one demonstration project for each coal and natural gas power plant and an industrial application. The bill directed an additional $8 billion to “clean hydrogen” projects. Another portion of that funding was earmarked for fossil fuels combined with carbon capture to make hydrogen. Hydrogen is often produced from natural gas today, but it also emits carbon dioxide.

Thompson, who is part of the Clean Air Task Force said that funding is necessary to help demonstrate different technologies at commercial scale. However, Thompson said that carbon capture requires far more government support, in the form tax incentives or a price on carbon emissions, to play a bigger role.

“You could see enormous growth, something like 200 million tons of CO2 captured every year in the 2030s” if the tax incentives were increased to the levels included in the Build Back Better Act, he said.

In other words, $12 billion could be a down payment.


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