As climate change increasingly becomes a top political issue around the world, governments and businesses will need to mobilize at unprecedented speed to transition to an economy of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the standard set forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their 1.5-degree report.
Though such an effort will require large scale deployment of solar and wind energy, the IPCC’s most optimistic projections also rely on carbon capture for usage and storage (CCUS).
But activists and experts are skeptical of fossil fuel industry support for CCUS and deploying the technology at a large scale remains a highly speculative endeavor.
For the unfamiliar, CCUS is the practice of extracting carbon dioxide from the air or other sources and either storing it underground or finding a commercial use for it.
The Carbon Capture Coalition (CCC) regularly refers to the IPCC report on its website and correctly points out that carbon capture will be a necessary component to any climate solution that would keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. Scientists like Wil Burns, Co-Executive Director of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy are skeptical though, especially considering the substantial role fossil fuel and coal companies are playing in the advocacy for CCUS.
‘Ironic First Market’
“[The CCC is] a lot of folks that would like to maintain the status quo in many ways,” Burns told The Globe Post.
“A lot of what they’re talking about is using carbon for enhanced oil recovery. That’s a nonstarter for some environmental organizations. There’s a lot of people that believe that what they’re trying to do is … get all of this federal money to subsidize their ability to continue to burn fossil fuels and get governments to spend the money to capture it.”
While there are several different methods of carbon capture, enhanced oil recovery (EOR) is particularly controversial because it involves pumping captured carbon into the ground to push oil to the surface. The CCC, along with a number of other pro-carbon capture organizations pushed EOR during a series of briefings they held in Washington D.C. from March through July of 2019.
Noah Deich is the executive director of Carbon 180, a California based non-profit which supports CCUS and told The Globe Post most EOR currently uses “fossil CO2” or carbon that has been underground for millions of years and that Carbon 180 supports EOR as a “bridge solution.”
“What we support instead of using fossil CO2, is to start taking the CO2 from anthropogenic sources whether that’s industrial plants, power facilities or ideally things like direct air capture facilities,” Deich said.
“It’s a really ironic first market for carbon capture technology. Oil companies willing to make more oil which is not good for the climate are actually a really important initial application for technology designed exactly for the purpose of reducing carbon emissions and cleaning them up.”
The problem for activists with EOR though isn’t necessarily the source from which the CO2 is coming from so much as the fact that the process is used as a way to extract more oil from the subsurface and thus produce more carbon emissions.
“It ends up just being further fossil fuel extraction,” Organizer for Climate Justice Edmonton Bronwen Tucker told The Globe Post. “You just recover CO2 just to make further oil extraction easier and more cost-effective. Ultimately you’re using those reductions to justify and produce more CO2.”
Burns pointed out there’s also no guarantee that areas where CO2 is stored or transported via pipeline won’t experience leakage.
“Well, you can’t you can’t guarantee that,” Burns said. “It’s much like methane leakage, right? You have to hope that there’s good monitoring and you’re building some new infrastructure in some cases, so hopefully that stuff will be sound for quite a long time. But it’s a question of requiring really good monitoring.”
“We’ve reached the tipping point for carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. If we don’t do something about it, expect extreme things to happen.”
Can carbon capture really help to reverse global warming?
— BBC World Service (@bbcworldservice) May 18, 2018
The CCC is a proponent of legislation like the FUTURE Act, which was passed in February of 2018 and included the 45Q tax credit that is offered to businesses as a way of incentivizing them to deploy CCUS technology. Another bill the coalition is currently pushing for is the USE IT Act, which would authorize a $35 million competitive federal grant for CCUS research, and $50 million to assist with carbon utilization projects.
Rich Powell is the executive director of ClearPath, a D.C. based non-profit “developing and advancing conservative policies that accelerate clean energy innovation.” Powell told The Globe Post his organization is trying to get the Department of Energy and industry to work together to bring down the cost of CCUS and called the 45Q tax credit a “pretty strong incentive” for industry to implement CCUS. Powell argued similar efforts have been successful in bringing down the cost of solar and shale gas.
“What CCUS is missing right now is a bold, aggressive goal and a shared vision across the DOE and working with industry to say ‘we need to get CCUS to this price point,’” Powell said. “Because this price point would be a really competitive way to have this technology stand up and succeed on its own in the markets and then drive all of our research and investments and partnerships towards achieving that price point.”
The most efficient carbon capture technology might be this tree. Here's why pic.twitter.com/7neFVPPD15
— Bloomberg TicToc (@tictoc) August 11, 2019
Both the FUTURE and USE IT Acts benefit from bipartisan support in Congress, in one of the only policy areas where Republicans have been willing to support substantive climate action. However, lobbying efforts by fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobil, Shell and others boost the legislation as well.
The lead sponsor of the USE IT Act, Republican Senator John Barrasso, happens to be the second-highest recipient of oil and gas industry contributions in the Senate according to the center for responsive politics. While this raises red flags for activists like Tucker, Powell doesn’t see it as a problem.
“We want them to have a vested interest and see a role for themselves in a future economy,” Powell said. “I think of the involvement of the oil and gas industry in all of this as a feature, not a bug. I’m as encouraging as I possibly can of those companies getting into this space and we sort of need them.”
Tucker looks at the relationship between the oil and gas industry differently and called public funding that goes to support CCUS research “fossil fuel subsidies.”
“We’re paying for polluters to clean up their own pollution when that’s research and development that they should be paying for themselves,” Tucker said.
“CCUS is a tool politically that we’ve seen the fossil fuel industry use for a very long time. Within Canada, CCUS is something that conservative governments have supported as a climate action instead of any discussion around phasing out fossil fuels, which is really clear that we need to do.”
Tucker said the focus for climate action should be on decarbonization and large scale deployment of energy alternatives to fossil fuels and that CCUS should not be the main priority. Tucker also argued that governments should be taking input on how to address the climate crisis from communities as opposed to industry in order to work towards a just transition away from fossil fuels.