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Why the oil industry’s pivot to carbon capture and storage – while it keeps on drilling – isn’t a climate change solution
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Why the oil industry’s pivot to carbon capture and storage – while it keeps on drilling – isn’t a climate change solution

Looking up toward the crowns of giant sequoia trees.


After decades of sowing doubtConcerning climate change and its causes the fossil fuel industry has shifted to a new strategy: presenting it as the source for solutions. This repositioning includes rebranding itself as a “carbon management industry.”

This strategic pivot was on displayAt the Glasgow climate summit, and at a Congressional hearing in October 2021, where CEOs of four major oil companies talked about a “lower-carbon future.” That future, in their view, would be powered by the fuels they supply and technologies they could deploy to remove the planet-warming carbon dioxide their products emit – provided they get sufficient government support.

This support could be coming. The Department of Energy recently added “carbon management” to the nameof its Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management and expanding its funding for carbon capture and storage.

But are these solutions really effective? And what are their consequences for you?

Coming from backgrounds in economics, ecology and public policyWe have spent many years together focusing on carbon drawdown. We have seen mechanical carbon capture methods fail to show success despite U.S. government investments in excess of US$7 billion in direct spendingAt least one billion more in tax credits. However, biological solutions that offer multiple benefits have received less attention.

CCS’s troubled track record

Carbon capture and storage (or CCS) aims to capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks at power plants or industrial sources. CCS at U.S. Power Plants has been a failure so far.

Seven large-scale CCS programs were tried at U.S. power plant facilities, each with hundreds million dollars of government subsidies. These projects were either cancelled before they reached commercial operation, or both. were shutteredAfter they started, financialor mechanical problems. Only one CCS power plant is currently in operation worldwide. in Canada, and its captured CO2 is used to extract more oil from wells – a process called “enhanced oil recovery.”

All but one of the following are found in industrial facilities dozen CCS projects in the U.SCaptures carbon dioxide to improve oil recovery.

This expensive oil extraction technique has been described as “climate mitigation” because the oil companies are now using carbon dioxide. A modeling study of the entire life cycle of the process at coal-fired power stations found it to be true, however. puts 3.7 to 4.7 times as much carbon dioxide into the air as it removes.

The problem with removing carbon from the atmosphere

Another method would remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. Oil companies like Occidental Petroleum ExxonMobil are seeking government subsidies to develop and deploy such “direct air capture” systems. However, one widely recognized problem with these systems is their immense energy requirements, particularly if operating at a climate-significant scale, meaning removing at least 1 gigaton – 1 billion tons – of carbon dioxide per year.

That’s about 3% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences projects a need to remove 10 gigatons per year by 2050, and 20 gigatons per year by century’s end if decarbonization efforts fall short.

A powered direct air capture system is the only one currently in large-scale development. fossil fuelTo achieve the highest heat for the thermal process.

A National Academies of Sciences study of direct air capture’s energy use indicates that to capture 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide per year, this type of direct air capture system could require up to 3,889 terawatt-hours of energy – almost as much as the total electricity generated in the U.S. in 2020. This system is used in the largest direct-air capture plant currently being developed in the U.S. the captured carbon dioxide will be used for oil recovery.

Another system that captures air using a solid sorbent uses less energy but is difficult to scale up for commercial use. Scientists are skeptical about the potential of direct air capture technology. However, there are ongoing efforts for more efficient and effective technologies. One study reveals the enormous energy and material requirements of direct air capture, which the authors claim makes it a very attractive option. “unrealistic.”Another study shows that clean energy can be as cost-effective as fossil fuels. more effective at reducing emissions, air pollution and other costs.

Scaling up is expensive

A 2021 study envisions spending $1 trillion a yearTo scale up direct air capture at a meaningful level. Bill GatesCarbon Engineering, a direct air capture company, is backing it. It estimates that operating at a climate-significant level would cost $5.1 trillion each year. Much of the cost would be borne by governments because there is no “customer” for burying waste underground.

Legislators in the U.S. and around the world are considering putting billions more into carbon capture. They need to consider the consequences.

The carbon dioxide must be transported somewhere to be used or stored. Princeton University’s 2020 study estimated that 66,000 miles of carbon dioxide pipelinesTo be able to reach 1 gigaton per calendar year of transport or burial, the buildings would need to be completed by 2050.

The problems with burying high-pressured CO2 underground will be similar to those that have been faced by nuclear waste sitting, but in much larger quantities. Transport, injection, and storage of carbon dioxide pose health and environmental risks, including the risk of pipeline ruptures, groundwater contaminationThe release of toxinsAll of these are particularly dangerous for the most vulnerable communities that have been historically most affected by pollution.

Bringing direct air capture to a scale that would have climate-significant impact would mean diverting taxpayer funding, private investment, technological innovation, scientists’ attention, public support and difficult-to-muster political action away from the essential work of transitioning to non-carbon energy sources.

Trees, plants, soil: This is a tried and true method.

Instead of putting our trust in expensive mechanical methods with a poor track record and requiring decades of development, there is a way to sequester carbon using biological sequestration.

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Trees in the U.S. are already sequestered almost a billion tonsannual amount of carbon dioxide. Improved management of urban trees and forests without the need for additional land. could increase this by 70%. The U.S. could sequester more land by reforesting almost 50 million acres, an area roughly equal to Nebraska. nearly 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. That would equal about 40% of the country’s annual emissions. Restoring wetlands grasslands better agricultural practicesYou could sequester more.

Looking up toward the crowns of giant sequoia trees.
Storing carbon in trees is cheaper per tonne than using current mechanical solutions.
Lisa-Blue via Getty Images

Per ton carbon dioxide sequestered. costs about one-tenth as muchAs current mechanical methods. It also offers many side-benefits, including reducing soil erosion, air pollution, and urban heat, increasing water security, biodiversity, and energy conservation, as well as improving watershed protection and human nutrition.

To be clear, no carbon removal approach – neither mechanical nor biological – will solve the climate crisis without an immediate transition away from fossil fuels. But we believe that relying on the fossil fuel industry for “carbon management” will only further delay that transition.


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