Publikation Inequality / Social Struggles - Labour / Unions - North America - Climate Justice The Hard Facts about Coal

Why Trade Unions Should Re-evaluate their Support for Carbon Capture and Storage





Sean Sweeney,


November 2015


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Trade unions—especially those representing workers in power generation and energy-intensive industries—have generally supported carbon capture and storage (CCS). This paper argues that unions should reconsider this support.

CCS is an evolving technology (or, more accurately, a suite of technologies) for reducing CO2 emissions from large, stationary emissions sources such as coal-fired power plants. The process involves the “capture” of CO2 from power plants and CO2-intensive industries, its subsequent transport to a storage site, and finally its injection into a suitable geological formation under the ground or seabed for the purposes of permanent storage. CCS technologies have the potential to capture up to 90% of the CO2 produced by a typical coal-fired power plant. Once captured, the gas is purified and compressed into a “supercritical” or near liquid state.

The subject addressed here is carbon capture and storage in the context of coal-fired power generation. This paper does not address CCS for industrial applications (so called Industrial CCS, or ICCS) or discuss its potential to be used in aluminum, steel, cement, ammonia, and fertilizer production. However, it is necessary to note that CCS for power generation is widely regarded as a precursor to industrial applications, so the prospects of CCS development in power generation will have a direct bearing on CCS development in energy-intensive industries, which underscores the importance of the issue to the entire debate on climate change mitigation.

Two sets of data, considered below, should lead unions to reconsider their support for CCS from a pro-CCS stance. These data are presented as two scenarios labeled “CCS non-deployment” and “CCS deployment.” The problems associated with either scenario are serious enough to require a thorough re-evaluation of trade union support for CCS. In the case that CCS is not deployed on a sufficient scale—a likely scenario, as we will see below—political support for CCS from unions and others provides cover for new coal infrastructure, but the emissions generated by this new capacity will never be captured or stored. But even if CCS is deployed on a mass scale, the health impacts and environmental damage associated with extracting, transporting, and burning coal will not be eliminated and may become worse due to the “energy penalty” associated with CCS. In either of these scenarios, trade union support for CCS separates the labor movement from other communities seeking to build a “movement of movements” for climate and environmental justice.

The paper concludes by urging that unions commit to developing a third scenario, one that is based on a willingness to challenge the assumption that the demand for energy will continue to rise and that “growth” as traditionally understood can continue in a more or less uninterrupted fashion. A third scenario will also be anchored in public ownership and the reclaiming of energy resources, infrastructure, and options to the public sphere. The only conceivable route for truly essential CCS development (such as for specific industrial purposes) lies completely outside of the neoliberal framework that presently sets the parameters for what’s possible within the narrow terrain of the market.

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