Carbon Capture and Storage: Fact or Fiction?
Extractive industry uses propaganda to protect private profits at the expense of the public interest. According to our analysis, evidence suggests that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a greenwashing scheme that not only bolsters the oil and gas industry, but is also a boon to other corporate interests opposed to decarbonizing the economy.
Ohio River Valley Carbon Capture and Storage Candidates
This interactive map looks at existing fossil fuel and energy infrastructure along with CO2 production in the Ohio River Valley.
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article.
In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view.
Items will activate in this map dependent on the level of zoom in or out.
Carbon Capture and Storage: Fact or Fiction?
Will taxpayers be on the hook for the incurred losses and none of the gains associated with carbon capture and storage (CCS)? As a result of new legislation, it appears that the answer is yes. The Federal Carbon Dioxide Removal Leadership Act recently introduced by Democratic Representatives Paul Tonko of New York and Scott Peters of California would direct the Department of Energy to pay for an increasing amount of carbon to be removed from the atmosphere each year at a cost of about $9.6 billion over the first 12 years (Grist), or roughly 15% of what the fossil fuel industry receives each year in “implicit fossil fuel subsidies” according to research by Matthew Kotchen at Yale University.
This would be on top of the $3.5 billion committed by the US Federal Government to Direct Air Capture (DAC) to build “four hubs for industrial carbon removal, without limitations on that funding flowing to private corporations.” This announcement caused consortia all across the country to clamor to be the first in line for government handouts like the IRS’s 45Q program “intended to incentivize investment in carbon capture and sequestration.”
CCS and CCUS are integral parts of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better (BBB) fleet of initiatives, but do they substantively address climate change? Or are they simply short-term profiteering schemes for the fossil fuel industry and their cronies? One ominous sign is that, in a city where the only thing the two parties can agree upon is the need to make Daylight Savings Time permanent, they both seem to be unified in cheerleading for CCS and CCUS.
The 45Q programs promoted by BBB were summarized by RBN Energy as follows, which gives us a sense for the increasingly obvious connectivity between Big Oil & Gas and Big Ag:
“The discussed changes incorporated in the BBB include significant increases in the tax credit for conventional sequestration methods, two elements included in nearly all plans to update the 45Q tax credit. For example, the current credit for [CCUS] (such as EOR) stands at $25.15/MT [Metric Tons]…and is scheduled to rise to $35/MT in 2026…under the existing tax code; under BBB, it would be reset at $50/MT…For CCS, the credit — now $37.85/MT…and set to increase to $50/MT…in 2026 — would soar to $85/MT…under BBB…the higher rates would significantly benefit carbon-capture retrofits on projects including ammonia, ethanol, natural gas processing, and hydrogen…”
As senior investigator at the Climate Investigations Center, and author of the Huffpost piece, “The Gassing of Satartia,” Dan Zegart wrote about the industries that stand to benefit from the profiteering associated with CCS and CCUS, stating, “There is…a much larger range of supporting industries, from ammonia to ethanol and fertilizer, chemicals, LNG, steel, cement and now hydrogen – than ten years ago. And the international climate treaty process has wrapped itself tightly around CCS as the magic bullet to keep the world at safer GHG levels.”
To Zegart’s point about industry connectivity and beneficiaries the US EPA FLIGHT data speaks to 453 cement manufacturing and related construction facilities in the US with average annual emissions of 257,207 metric tons of CO2, 31 NGL or LNG facilities averaging 365,843 metric tons of CO2, 668 agricultural operators broadly defined to include fertilizers averaging 167,187 metric tons of CO2, and 105 ethanol related operators averaging 160,529 metric tons of CO2 emitted (Table 1).
Total and Average CO2 Emissions
|Facility Type||Number||Total CO2 (Tons)||Average CO2 (Tons)|
|2010 to 2020|
|LNG or NGL||31||46,011,650||1,484,247|
|Semiconductors, Steel, Iron Ore, Coke||342||1,200,827,357||3,511,191|
|Miscellaneous Oil & Gas Infrastructure||134||134,910,128||1,006,792|
|Gas Processing Plants||730||685,984,520||939,705|
|Gas Boosting and Gathering Infrastructure||1,337||1,104,612,840||826,188|
|Offshore Oil & Gas||156||59442911||381044.3|
|US Government Facilities||90||691,860,992||7,687,345|
|Universities and Colleges||132||108,183,574||819,572|
§ Includes gypsum, glass, asphalt, lime, etc.
Table 1. Total and Average CO2 Emissions across sectors in the US EPA FLIGHT Emissions Database.
There is recent evidence that a majority of CCUS technologies don’t permanently store CO2, collect it from atmospheric and natural sources, nor have zero emissions. A team of scientists at Radboud University in the Netherlands found that 32 of the 40 CCUS technologies they looked at did not meet any of these criteria, and in fact emitted more carbon than they captured. The exceptions were those technologies deployed in the production of concrete and oil extraction, such as enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Furthermore, from a political and financial perspective, there is evidence of rampant fraud in the carbon-capture tax credits program with the US Treasury Department finding that $893 million of the $1 billion in tax credits claimed by ten companies from 2010 to 2019 didn’t comply with EPA incentive program rules.
The loudest voices in favor of weakening EPA emissions include the largest fish in the oil and gas pond like ExxonMobil. It can’t be a coincidence that Exxon wants to weaken EPA emissions requirements while its much ballyhooed 35-year-old Shute Creek EOR CCUS Project in Southwest Wyoming has “failed to reach carbon dioxide (CO2) capture capacity…and has vented captured CO2 back into the atmosphere when it couldn’t be sold to companies extracting more oil from depleted reservoirs.”
Figure 1. ExxonMobil Shute Creek or LaBarge CCUS project in Big Piney, Wyoming.
Figure 2. The description of several of ExxonMobil’s major upstream projects including the LaBarge CCUS project along with net gas production and CCUS capacity.
In a paper published in 2020 called “Assessing Carbon Capture: Public Policy, Science, and Societal Need,” June Sekera and Andreas Lichtenberger took the CCS/CCUS critique one step further, noting that, “The term “CCUS” was fabricated circa 2013 (Pigeon 2019) in order to highlight the potential commercial value of captured CO2; the U.S. Dept. of Energy then “re-branded” CCS to CCUS (Veld et al. 2013).” This latter reference expanded on the rebranding effort in stating:
“Recognizing perhaps the political advantage in emphasizing that captured CO2 can generate economic value, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has in fact recently re-branded CCS to CCUS the U standing for utilization, mostly in CO2-EOR projects. The DOEs most recent report on CO2-EOR dramatizes the sequestration potential of CO2-EOR projects by estimating that they could collectively sequester the emissions from as many as 93 one-GW-size coal fired power plants…”
Those eager to prove their ability to create and manage a Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) hub include notorious Appalachian oil and gas actors like Marathon and its recently-acquired subsidiary MarkWest, as well as EQT and Shell (See Ohio River Valley Carbon Capture and Storage Candidates map below).
The cynic would ask: How is it that, after decades of finding ways to pump billions of tons of carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere, denying climate change exists, extracting trillions in subsidies, and managing to get large percentages of elected officials including Louisiana senator Bill Cassidy and Wyoming senator Cynthia Lummis to bend the knee to them, these same corporations speaking as if they have found their religion? US Steel’s Senior VP Richard Fruehauf said of the possibility of an Appalachian CCS hub, “we saw a great opportunity … for the region to be a leader in decarbonization and hydrogen and the clean energy economy going forward.”
EQT, one of the preeminent players in the Appalachian fracking space, is enthusiastic about the role they can play in mitigating climate change saying in a statement in support of the Appalachian CCS hub that “leveraging a culture that prioritizes operational efficiency, technology and sustainability, we seek to continuously improve the way we produce environmentally responsible, reliable and low-cost energy.”
To ring in the New Year, the mighty ExxonMobil put out a Tweet proclaiming, “Carbon Capture and storage is the emissions-fighting superhero you may have never heard of,” which looks a lot like ExxonMobil is attempting to distract from their responsibility for causing climate change. If Exxon is required to stand trial for “misleading consumers and investors about climate change and the dangers of using fossil fuels” according to a recent ruling from Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court is any indication of what’s in store for big oil and gas, their attempts at greenwashing the industry, wrapping themselves in the American Flag like supposed patriots in the crusade for U.S. energy independence, and positioning themselves at the vanguard of CCS will not be enough to exonerate them.
There is clear evidence of guilt. According to Basav Sen of the Institute for Policy Studies, CO2 CCS pipelines are a massive greenwashing scheme designed to prop up undeserving industrial actors in South Dakota News Watch:
“It’s such a dangerous form of green-washing, where you’re trying to take an environmentally destructive activity and rebrand it in a way that makes it appear benign. The idea of using energy sources that put carbon into the atmosphere and addressing it after the fact by attempting to capture that carbon and store it in the ground is a non-starter for all kinds of reasons having to do with science, social justice, and economic feasibility.”
Even unapologetic advocates for the fracking industry like Harold Hamm and his Continental Resources have declared interest in CCS, with Hamm deciding to invest $250 million in Summit Agricultural Group’s proposal to capture 8 million tons of CO2 per year from 31 ethanol refineries across Iowa, Nebraska, South and North Dakota, and the southwest corner of Minnesota, and pipe it in liquified form to be injected underground in North Dakota’s Oliver and Mercer Counties (See Greenway and Summit CO2 Pipeline Proposal Map Below). One opinion columnist in the InForum out of Fargo, North Dakota summed up his views on Summit and CCS more broadly:
“The CO2 pipeline would ship waste from ethanol plants which calls into question just how green ethanol really is. Is it just a way to prop up corn prices? One must contemplate the ethics in which foodstuffs are turned into fuel in a world with 690 million undernourished people. And can we be sure CO2 storage will not taint the environment? Let’s call CO2 sequestration what it is, a lifeline to extend the viability of energy polluters, including coal plants.”
Private Profits, Public Problems
One aspect of CCS that the private sector is particularly eager to highlight is the collaborative nature of “public-private partnerships [PPPs] across borders and sectors,” but we know from the 2008 bailout of too-big-to-fail banks, the tireless work of Vandana Shiva in books such as “Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit”, and the privatization of water supplies and treatment, that no matter where these partnerships exist on the globe, privatized interests inevitably leave the public part of the partnership to suffer when the music stops playing – or oil, gas, water, precious metal, or C02 stops flowing at a profitable rate. Thus, who owns infrastructure and reaps the rewards is a critical question in this case. As a result, many people on the political left are making the case for public ownership in favor of privately-owned firms that profit off climate change denial, exacerbate income inequality, and have long and horrible histories of human rights and environmental justice abuses.
As Andrew Bergman and his co-authors pointed out in The New Republic, “Climate advocates are being offered a false choice between giving in to corporate carbon removal, driven by profits and greenwashing, or fighting it. But there is an entirely different option: The United States and other rich countries could instead pursue equitable development and scale-up of carbon removal technologies under a public model of ownership and governance.”
Bergman and his co-authors cited public water utilities as a model for how to manage CCS citing the fact that in 2014 “publicly owned water utilities served 87 percent of people who had piped water service and charged consumers, on average, two-thirds the cost charged by their privately owned counterparts.” Furthermore, public water and waste utilities are charged with processing a “pure cost” or something that just comes as a price of doing business. This type of model stands in direct repudiation to the current narrative around The Internet of Things, our endless arrogance in believing in our ability to tech our way out of problems, and the huge opportunities associated with treating carbon as a commodity. Bergman and colleagues make a convincing argument for public utilities as the framework for executing on the massive task of removing carbon from the atmosphere and the holistic valuation of ecosystem services worldwide.
Judging by recent CCS discussions in Pittsburgh and The Dakotas, there is very little room left for dissent, never mind public ownership of CCS.ust like the fracking revolution that hit the region more than a decade ago, the industry, the $9 trillion asset manager BlackRock , and consulting firms like McKinsey & Co. are highlighting all the positives and marginalizing or ignoring any negatives that come from the buildout necessary to transport, process, and inject CO2. The interactions or overlap between CCS infrastructure and the tremendous natural gas infrastructure associated with the hydraulic fracturing industry is something that regulators do not appear to have their heads around or seem keen to understand better. Transporting CO2, natural gas, and natural gas liquids across thousands of miles of transmission and gathering pipelines near each other or even along the same right-of-way and at high pressures and volumes seems like a huge gamble, especially when considering Appalachian terrain that such a network of pipelines would have to traverse if for example the Ohio River Valley Hub comes to fruition.
Princeton University research published in December of 2020 suggested a thirteen-fold increase in CO2 CCS pipelines here in the US by 2050 from 5K to 65K miles, with the current inventory of 50 C02 pipelines transporting roughly 68 million tons of CO2 annually. The goal of such a buildout would be to aggregate CO2 emissions from “multiple small-volume sources for higher-volume transportation.” This interest in aggregation of smaller volume emitters calls into question the IRS’s 45Q language focusing on emitters of more than 500,000 metric tons per year, of which only 98 facilities (00.78%) in the US EPA’s FLIGHT database fit such criteria with the remaining 10,233 facilities falling below that threshold (See US EPA FLIGHT CO2 Emissions from 2010-2020 data below). As John Robert at IEEFA reported about a CCS project proposed by Santos in Australia “the project will still release the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions, with or without CCS… Transporting CO2 over such a large distance creates high emissions from the needed compression and processing. The emissions are so high, any effort for CO2 storage is negated, even before assuming CO2 storage actually works.” What those that live in the path of such proposals can most assuredly expect was admitted to by Wolf Carbon solutions senior VP Nick Noppinger in advocating for more and bigger CCS projects:
“We’re oversizing our system in anticipation of companies building new plants right next to that line… Once you have the infrastructure in place, you can expect other industrial customers all around your pipeline to be encouraged — it makes it a lot easier to connect in and capture their CO2 and connect into your system.”
This would mean a reboot and/or expansion of industrial corridors nationwide that have been cited adjacent to or within communities of color or otherwise with little means to fight or move when their quality of life suffers. Such corridors have existed for decades from Southwest Detroit and Southeastern Chicago/Gary, IN to St. James Parish, LA and much of the Ohio River Valley. We know from having visited many of these places and heard from those living on the “fenceline” that when they think of climate change and a greener future for their children, CCS/CCUS was not what they had in mind.
The Take Away
According to our analysis, evidence suggests that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a greenwashing scheme that not only bolsters the oil and gas industry, but is also a boon to other corporate interests opposed to decarbonizing the economy.
References & Where to Learn More
This article is part three in a series about carbon capture and storage. In the next installment, we look at how CCS pipeline proposals are playing out in the United States’ Bread Basket, the role that pore space is playing in these discussions, and current and future legislation designed to impede the ability of individuals to fight back against eminent domain and related industry heavy handedness. Read more.
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