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The Demand for Carbon Capture Is a Gift to the Fossil Fuel Industry

Oil companies, governments, unions, media outlets, big environmental groups, and even sections of the Left have all declared carbon capture technology to be an important way to combat climate change. But what this demand actually does is justify continued fossil fuel extraction and preserve the unsustainable status quo.

Robert Belano

August 21, 2021
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Petra Nova carbon capturing plant at the W.A. Parish power plant outside Houston, Texas.

Last month, a letter was presented to Congress signed by an odd coalition of big oil and gas companies, airlines, labor unions, and big environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy and National Wildlife Federation. Their demand? Increased funding for the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. This technology, say the signatories, is necessary to combat the alarming levels of atmospheric CO2 concentration, the biggest contributor to global warming. 

Even sections of the Left, particularly writers connected to Jacobin magazine, have echoed the fossil fuel and airline industries in calling for the expansion of carbon capture facilities. One Jacobin writer went so far as to say CCS should be scaled up “a thousand fold.”

Why have such disparate sectors lined up behind this climate solution?

What is Carbon Capture?

Despite increasingly devastating extreme weather events, record high temperatures, and steadily rising sea levels, the world’s energy supply is still supplied overwhelmingly by fossil fuels. An estimated 85 percent of energy worldwide is produced through fossil fuel combustion. Meanwhile, the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide now stands at around 410 parts per million, higher than it has been in 800,000 years.

Carbon capture is a process by which CO2 gas is sucked from the air or from the emissions of fossil fuel plants and buried in the ground. The idea sounds intriguing and not dissimilar to the process of photosynthesis, by which plants and algae extract CO2 from the air and convert it using the sun’s energy into plant tissue. As one industry think tank says, carbon capture “uses the same forces and processes that have trapped oil, gas (including naturally occurring CO2) and other hydrocarbons in the Earth’s subsurface for millions of years.” 

As each year sees new records set in atmospheric carbon concentration, we should welcome the technology with open arms, right? 

Not quite.

A Catalyst for Even More CO2 Pollution

To begin with, the majority of carbon that’s captured each year by CCS facilities is actually reused by oil companies in a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery. By some estimates, nearly 80 percent of all captured carbon is used for enhanced oil recovery, which involves injecting the captured carbon into the ground to extract otherwise unreachable reserves of oil. In other words, CCS facilities are taking CO2 out of the atmosphere just to put much of it back in from new fossil fuel extraction and combustion. When enhanced oil recovery technology is employed in combination with CCS, 73 percent of captured carbon eventually goes back into the atmosphere.

This partially explains why big oil, gas, and coal are so enthusiastic about carbon capture. Corporations are able to establish their “green” credibility while continuing to emit carbon and pollute the air and water. In fact, with carbon capture facilities and carbon transport pipelines often subsidized by the federal government, fossil fuel companies are incentivized to increase extractive activity. As Greenpeace notes, the use of enhanced oil recovery means “the captured CO2 … will become a catalyst for even more CO2 pollution.” 

Insufficient and Inefficient 

The Global CCS Institute, a pro-CCS advocacy group, estimates that the total carbon sequestered by CCS around the world currently stands at 40 million tons per year. This sounds like an impressive figure until we consider that the amount of CO2 released in the atmosphere is now around 33 billion tons annually. This means that only about 0.1 percent of all COemitted is currently captured by CCS facilities. Even under the most optimistic scenarios where facilities are rapidly built and brought online — and the captured carbon is not reused for further extractive activity — the technology would still capture only a small fraction of total emissions. 

Then there is the exorbitant cost. In 2016, construction began on the Petra Nova carbon capture facility in southwest Houston, financed in part by a $195 million Department of Energy grant. The facility was designed to capture emissions from a coal-fired power plant owned by NRG Energy and appeared to show early success. The company reported more than 90 percent of carbon emissions from the plant were being captured. Media outlets lauded the project; the New York Times called it “a bright spot for the technology’s supporters.” Last February, the project was indefinitely shut down. That’s because Petra Nova sought to reuse the captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery, but with the arrival of the global coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent plummet in oil prices, NRG no longer determined carbon capture to be a worthwhile investment. 

There are currently only around 20 large-scale carbon capture facilities in operation worldwide. The cost of building a single carbon capture facility can be upwards of $1 billion — the total estimated cost of the now-defunct Petra Nova plant. Scaling up carbon capture “a thousand fold,” as Jacobin’s Holly Buck proposes, would equal costs of at least $1 trillion, not including ongoing maintenance and operation costs, and still wouldn’t bring us one inch closer to reducing fossil fuel dependence and transitioning toward renewable energy. Who will pay the cost of building and maintaining these facilities? Without a financial incentive, like revenue from enhanced oil recovery or government subsidies, polluters are unlikely to take on the heavy investment costs associated with CCS themselves. A large portion of the burden will therefore fall on working-class and middle-class taxpayers. Once again, the multinational energy companies will continue to reap massive profits from fossil fuel extraction while simultaneously taking advantage of public funding and hurting the working class. 

These costs don’t even take into consideration the environmental impact of running hundreds of energy-intensive carbon capture and storage facilities around the world. What CCS proponents ignore is that the capture of greenhouse gasses necessitates that a significant amount of fuel be burned over and above that needed to generate electricity. Food and Water Watch notes that “retrofitting natural gas and coal plants with CCS while producing the same amount of electricity could raise natural gas and coal production by 13 percent and 35 percent, respectively.” Even if facilities were able to capture and store 100% of a fossil-fuel-fired plant’s “normal” CO2 output plus the additional output from running CCS, it would still mean major environmental impact, since “burning fuels to produce electricity emits dangerous air pollution, depletes scarce water resources and generates large quantities of toxic waste.” Then there are the serious consequences of the continued drilling, fracking and mining that will naturally follow the expansion of CCS, everything from poisoned drinking water to earthquakes

A Justification for More Fossil Fuel Extraction

Clearly, CCS is wholly insufficient to deal with the immense climate crisis we’re now facing. But media outlets continue to tout the potential of the technology. Each day new extraordinary stories of “successful” carbon capture and storage projects appear in the media. Billionaire “philanthropists” like Bill Gates have pledged considerable sums toward CCS projects. The latest infrastructure bill, approved by the Senate and supported by the Biden administration, includes billions in funding toward carbon capture.  Even the Paris Climate Agreements’ targets were predicated on developing CCS technology and facilities that don’t currently exist. How can we explain why so much of the establishment has lined up behind carbon capture? 

Carbon capture is a highly marketable solution precisely because it greenwashes the continued extraction of fossil fuel companies, offering the hope that we can simply turn hydrocarbons into a clean and viable source of energy. Almuth Ernsting, founder of Biofuelwatch, says, “It gives people the sense that we can get away from burning ever more fossil fuels and this is a wonderful way of getting carbon back out of the atmosphere. Even if it isn’t done, it provides some golden solution out there to justify not cutting emissions.” It’s no wonder that the oil industry has invested heavily in bringing attention to CCS. Just Google “carbon capture,” and you’ll find several sponsored search results from ExxonMobil, Aramco, and Shell. Carbon capture is the ideal solution for the fossil fuel industry because it doesn’t threaten their bottom line — in fact, as we’ve seen, it can be used to boost the profits of fossil capital.

But why have organizations that claim to speak for workers and the environment, pledged their support for new CCS funding from Congress? As Food and Water Watch notes, several “well-funded national environmental organizations have uncritically swallowed the fallacious talking point that CCS is both necessary and capable of meeting climate demands.” Among the more than 160 signatories of the previously mentioned letter to Congress were environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, and union federations like the AFL-CIO and LIUNA. That’s because the objective of these organizations is not to clash with the fossil fuel giants but to partner with big oil and gas to protect modest amounts of land or to enact symbolic climate measures that generate headlines but don’t seriously cut into profits. 

Fortunately, the majority of environmental organizations worldwide oppose carbon capture as a solution. More than 500 U.S. and Canadian climate and environmental groups signed a statement urging lawmakers to reject CCS. This technology, they rightly note, is a “dangerous distraction,” which is “unnecessary,” “does not work,” and “benefits polluters.”

CCS Mythology Captivates the Left

Sectors of the Left, however, and particularly environmental writers connected to Jacobin magazine, have repeated the dubious claims put forward by the fossil fuel companies about carbon capture technology. 

Leigh Phillips, whose work appears regularly in Jacobin, has repeatedly stressed the need for CCS, both for the creation of jobs and the protection of the planet. He states that “a Green New Deal that puts nuclear power and synthetic hydrocarbons at the heart of an all-of-the-above approach including solar, wind, enhanced geothermal, wave, tidal, hydrogen, and CCS (carbon capture and storage) represents the sort of economic stimulus that deindustrialized communities can understand as delivering genuine transformation. It could secure a future for both the planet and the political left.” 

Can Phillips truly be unaware that “all-of-the-above” was the exact catchphrase used by both the Bush II and Obama administrations to describe their own climate proposals — plans which included the continued use of coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear, alongside renewables? Phillips’s rhetoric not only gives cover to the establishment politicians who did nothing to combat the climate emergency but also fosters the exceedingly dangerous illusion that there’s still time to be burning fossil fuels. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Holly Buck, another Jacobin contributor, goes even further, stating that “combining direct air capture with enhanced oil recovery could produce carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative fuel, if the production process pumps more CO2 into depleted reservoirs than it extracts in the form of carbon emissions.” Incredibly, Buck would have us believe that oil extraction and combustion could actually become carbon negative. Better spin could not have come from the PR departments of the fossil fuel giants themselves. 

What Is Necessary Instead?

Rather than dumping huge sums of public funds into unproven and costly technology at the expense of the working class, we should demand that every measure be taken to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This means taking measures to challenge the interests of the biggest polluters, including the fossil fuel corporations, the petrochemical companies, the airline monopolies, the military, and the auto manufacturers. We must demand the nationalization of the entire energy sector, with the airline industry and the auto industry under worker and consumer control in order to transition in the fastest possible time to renewable energy. We must call for a massive scale down of energy usage, which could be achieved by replacing auto production with the creation of fast and reliable public transportation, and ending the production and use of luxury goods such as yachts, mansions, luxury cars, and private jets. Renewable energy projects, including solar farms, wind farms, and hydroelectric projects, must be immediately developed through public works projects and paid for by heavy taxes on the fortunes of the super-rich.

Further, we already have a proven method of sustainable and efficient carbon capture — reforestation and the protection of all existing forests. Transitioning away from car production toward high-speed rail would not only cut CO2 emissions but allow us to free up vast swaths of land — highways, parking lots, etc. — for reforestation. Major public works projects could be launched to replant and care for trees and fight wildfires. None of this “carbon capture technology” would require trillions in annual operational costs. It wouldn’t contaminate the air or waterways. It wouldn’t be used to carry out more fossil fuel extraction. But just like all meaningful climate measures, it is unacceptable to the establishment — politicians, corporations, the bureaucratic union leaderships, and the big nonprofit organizations — for one important reason: It would challenge the capitalist status quo.

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Robert Belano

Robert Belano is a writer and editor for Left Voice. He lives in the Washington, DC area.

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