News | Socio-ecological Transformation - COP28 A Tool for Disaster

No matter how it is implemented, Carbon Capture and Storage is a dangerous distraction — and incompatible with climate justice



Laura Dunn,

Petra Nova CCS Facility at NRG Power Plant in Richmond, Texas, U.S., 2018
The Petra Nova carbon capture project, which has been shut down 2020, shows the likely fate of other CCS initiatives for coal-fired power plants. Petra Nova CCS Facility at NRG Power Plant in Richmond, Texas, U.S., Foto: picture alliance / REUTERS | TRISH BADGER

Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual US and Canadian emissions, says a report from Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International. Despite successes like this, and the diversity of viable climate solutions proposed by social movements, Indigenous peoples and communities all around the world, techno-fixes like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) — proposals to capture carbon dioxide from oil and natural gas extraction and from industrial sources and store it underground — grab the attention of policy makers and are attractive to fossil fuel entrepreneurs and investors as a new climate business.

Laura Dunn works with the international research and action collective ETC Group.

Some environmental groups and researchers — even those who are openly pro-geoengineering but want to appear as “environmentalists” — also promote CCS. They even abuse the term “climate justice”, or refer to CCS projects as being “community-centred” — as if this risky techno-fix could really play a role in solving the climate crisis.

They usually qualify the statement by saying that the problem with CCS is actually the ownership model, and that the technology could be used successfully in a scenario where it was publicly owned. But this omits the fact that CCS has been a failure, and it survived only with enormous public subsidies and incentives. There are fundamental problems with CCS that make it the wrong choice to confront the climate crisis, and definitely not an option for anyone who fights for climate justice.

When You Have a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail

The technology for Carbon Capture was first developed in the 1920s in order to remove CO2 from natural gas to extract methane pure enough to sell, and it has been used for this purpose ever since. At the time, the remaining CO2 was not seen to serve any other purpose.

However, in the 1970s the oil industry realised that they could use the remaining CO2 to access deep oil and gas reserves, which were otherwise impossible or not economically viable to extract. In 1972, the Terrell natural gas processing plant became the first plant to use captured CO2 to extract additional oil from oil fields far away — a technique called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).

The natural gas at the Terrell plant had a CO2 content of 18 to 53 percent and would not have been marketable without removing the CO2. The captured CO2 was then piped through several hundred kilometres of pipelines and injected into mature oil fields where the natural pressure of the oil was not high enough anymore to push it to the surface. The carbon dioxide, injected into the wells under high pressure, mixes with the oil that then can be pumped to the surface for processing.

The long-term viability of underground storage is unproven and leaks pose a major problem.

Looking at this history, it is clear that capturing CO2 is something that the oil and gas industry has been doing since the 1920s. But it has always been used to either refine methane or extract more oil and gas out of the ground. Recent analyses show that fossil fuel companies are involved with 85 percent of known CCS projects. A 2019 report by the Center for International Environmental Law found that 85 percent of US subsidies for CCS go to Enhanced Oil Recovery projects that extract more oil and gas out of the ground. Extracting further oil and gas seems to be a key part of CCS, whether it is in public or private hands.

The difference between CCS in the 1970s and CCS today is that the same technology that industry has been using for years to extract more oil and gas is now being “rebranded” as a climate mitigation technology. When social movements pushed governments and industry hard on the climate crisis in the late 1990s and early 2000s, CCS provided both a new business opportunity and a distraction from the fact that the oil industry’s pollution is the main cause of the climate crisis.

A History of Failure

However, despite billions of dollars in public and private investment, a century after CCS technology first went into use it is still extraordinarily ineffective for a technology that investors, governments, and even some researchers appear to take seriously. Failed and underperforming CCS projects considerably outnumber the projects that are on track.

One IEEFA study looked at thirteen flagship Carbon Capture projects and found that ten of 13 had failed or were extremely far from capturing the target level of emissions. CCS projects generally serve the original purpose for which the technology was developed: processing natural gas and extracting further oil and gas.

The list of failed CCS projects is long. In the US, at least 15 projects have consumed billions of dollars of public money without sequestering any significant amount of carbon. The study by IEFFA found that close to 90 percent of proposed CCS projects in the power sector failed at the implementation stage or were suspended early, and most CCS projects failed to operate at a level anywhere close to their target capture rates. The ineffectiveness of CCS means that even when developed and used by state-owned entities or other institutions without the financial incentive to reuse the CO2 extracted for EOR, the technology does not capture enough carbon and too expensive to merit consideration.

With this track record of failure it should not be difficult to understand that CCS is nothing but an industry illusion. Nonetheless, even if CCS projects could reach the targets set out for them (which only happens in extremely rare cases) the amount they capture is insignificant — next to 40 billion tons of carbon emitted each year.

David Ho, a climate scientist at the University of Hawaii, uses the analogy of a time machine to make it easier to understand the scale of climate technologies. If the world produces over 40 billion tons of CO2 per year, then we can compare technologies that remove carbon by looking at how far back in time they would take us based on the rate of 40 billion tons per year. For example, a CCS plant that captured 1 million tons of carbon per year (still an unrealistic target for many projects) would take the atmosphere back in time by 13 minutes. But in the time it took this CCS plant to turn the clock back 13 minutes on the atmosphere, another full year’s worth of carbon would have been spewed into the atmosphere.

This is also true for state-owned CCS projects, as some examples show.

Saskpower is a Canadian state-owned power corporation that operates the Boundary Dam CCS project. After four years of operation, the project had captured 2.46 million tonnes of CO2, or 0.62 million tonnes per year. In 2021, after seven years of operation, the average value dropped to 0.57 million tonnes per year. Like other CCS projects, the project was struggling to reach its target amount of carbon captured and the amount of CO2 captured has been declining since the project started. This is despite huge amounts of public subsidies that could have gone to real alternatives to address climate change.

Petronas, a Malaysian state-owned petroleum company, intends to develop a CCS project, with the goal of capturing about four million tonnes of CO2 per year. Using David Ho’s analogy, this plant would only take the atmosphere back in time by around 52 minutes. But of course, in that time another full year’s worth of CO2 would have been released — and that is based on the Petronas plant reaching its target capacity, which is unrealistic given the track record of CCS plants.

The oil and gas industry began developing the capacity to store captured CO2 in 1996, about 26 years after it started using CO2 for Enhanced Oil Recovery. CO2 is usually stored in deep geological sites such as saline aquifers, old fossil fuel reservoirs, or coal bed seams. Storing captured carbon, rather than using it to extract more fossil fuels, is only a feature in a small percentage of carbon capture projects, but this small set of projects receives significant attention as a climate solution from governments and the oil and gas industry.

No matter how academics attempt to frame CCS, it is clear that this technology is only effective at achieving its original purpose, refining methane and extracting further oil and gas.

The first carbon capture project to also attempt to store the carbon long-term is the Sleipner CCS in the North Sea, owned by the government of Norway. It is credited as being the most successful large-scale CCS in operation and longest-running since 1996. However, the geology of the Slipner storage location has proven difficult to assess. Unexpected geological changes have meant that CO2 stored at Sleipner has risen from its injection point to the top part of the storage location. Large amounts of CO2 began to accumulate in this previously unknown upper area. Without this unknown upper layer, CO2 would have begun to escape.

The long-term viability of underground storage is unproven and leaks pose a major problem. Looking at how the oil and gas industry, even state-owned corporations, deals with methane leaks (another climate relevant gas) does not inspire confidence in their ability to safely and securely store CO2 either underground or in offshore wells. Looking at other oil and gas wells, a study by researchers at the Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research found that methane leakage was detected at 65 percent of the directly investigated wells, amounting to extensive gas leaks.

It seems quite likely that stored carbon, especially if injected into old fossil fuel reservoirs, would leak much like old methane wells, wasting all the resources needed to capture the carbon in the first place. If a storage site failed while CO2 was being injected into it, it could result in the release of a large amount of CO2. Looking at the big picture, there is simply a lack of reliable evidence that CO2 injected underground will stay there.

Dangerous Transportation and Storage

When CCS promoters from the fossil fuel industry present this technology, they often picture it as just a kind of magical sucking and burying CO22. Promoters of public investment in CCS technology include Petronas in Malaysia and the Pathways Alliance in Canada. In the US, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provided 8.5 billion US dollar in investment. This industry demands a whole lot of new infrastructure, and a completely new web of CO2 pipelines that are extremely dangerous.

In February 2022, residents of Satartia, Mississippi experienced first-hand the dangers that accompany CO2 pipelines. CO2 is transported at low temperatures and pumped at high pressure. When the pipeline near the small town ruptured, the gas shot out and became a low hanging cloud that could suffocate those nearby. Some residents were stuck on the highway because the CO2 had crowded out the oxygen needed for their engines to start, while other residents of this majority-black community were gasping for air, nauseated and dazed. Forty-nine residents were hospitalized, some with breathing complications that have endured long-term since the pipeline burst.

It should be very clear that any expansion of CCS technologies comes with serious risks associated with its transportation and the installation of new facilities, which will most often be placed in the same communities that are already suffering the health and environmental impacts of oil and gas extraction industries. The dangers become far more serious and legally complicated in transboundary cases across states or countries. Concentrated CO2 is a dangerous asphyxiant. Given the oil and gas industry’s track record of leaky pipelines, this does not bode well for a technology where any leaking CO2 is a danger to public health and a further threat to the climate.

No Room for CCS in Climate Justice

The attempt to promote CCS as a climate solution is bizarre given its risk to communities, its failures, and how this technology has been used as an alibi to extract more oil. Even compared to conventional environmental solutions, the cost of renewable power is now less than the cheapest fossil fuel power generation.

No matter how academics attempt to frame CCS, it is clear that this technology is only effective at achieving its original purpose, refining methane and extracting further oil and gas. From a climate justice perspective, CCS is a tool for disaster.