Carbon Capture: Expensive Pipe Dream or “Holy Grail”?

Today, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology is touted by proponents as a way to continue burning fossil fuels in a carbon constrained economy.  However, two recent reports bring into question the feasibility of CCS technology to mitigate the climate crisis. The first report, released by the Center for International Environmental Law, addresses the potential of CCS to further entrench fossil fuels. The second report, authored by engineers from the Imperial College London and released in Nature, outlines the enormous infrastructural and economic challenges to making CCS an effective mitigation technology.

CCS will further entrench fossil fuels

As highlighted in CIEL’s report, “industry advocates openly believe CCS and CDR [Carbon Dioxide Removal] are essential to save coal, insure the future of oil and gas, and ‘unlock’ unburnable carbon.”  One way “unburnable carbon” is “unlocked” through CCS is by attempting to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants that burn coal, gas or oil, theoretically allowing them to stay in operation longer even in the face of stricter carbon pollution laws. However, another way to “unlock” fossil fuels is with Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), the main economic incentive for CCS.  

EOR is a process that increases the pressure of an existing oil well by injecting it with carbon dioxide or other fluids or gases. This can increase the amount of oil recovered from a well by up to 15%.  Combining CCS and EOR technologies results in marginal carbon reduction, as the captured carbon dioxide is used to enable the extraction of more carbon intensive fossil fuels. In theory, some of the carbon dioxide remains underground even as the oil comes up.  Unfortunately for the climate, without the economic incentive created by a market for carbon dioxide in EOR, companies have little incentive to invest in and install expensive CCS technology to capture carbon and even less to pay to permanently sequester it underground, which is the ideal scenario for emissions mitigation. A price on carbon could change these economics.

According to CIEL’s analysis, proponents of CCS investment believe it “could spur consumption of 40 percent more coal and up to 923 million additional barrels of oil in the US alone by 2040.” CIEL also highlights that potentially “85 percent of US government subsidies for CCS and Direct Air Capture (DAC) would flow to EOR projects,” resulting in even more fossil fuels retrieved and burned.  

The report published in Nature echoes this sentiment stating that, while CCS-EOR provides a helpful economic incentive for early projects, it “may prove to be a costly distraction, financially and politically, from the real task of mitigation.”

However, even if EOR is removed from the scenario, it is staggering to contemplate the task of establishing a carbon capture and sequestration industry large enough to put the massive ongoing plume of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions back in the ground, permanently.

CCS at scale would require massive amounts of costly infrastructure

The engineers who authored the Nature report explain that, “Given that CCS is expected to account for the mitigation of approximately 14–20% of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions, in 2050 the CCS industry will need to be larger by a factor of 2–4 in volume terms than the current global oil industry. In other words, we have 35 years to deploy an industry that is substantially larger than one which has been developed over approximately the last century…” As the source of the expected mitigation capacity of CCS, the report cites a International Energy Agency report addressing reductions needed by 2050 to maintain a scenario of only 2 degrees of warming.

The authors compare this “exceptionally challenging task” as “similar in scale to wartime mobilization.” Even after you have built a network of CO2 pipelines larger than all that exist now for oil and gas, finding suitable and safe geologic strata to store the CO2 adds to the challenge.

Lee Raymond of ExxonMobil expressed doubt about CCS in 2007

In 2007, Lee Raymond, former CEO of ExxonMobil and renowned climate denier, was asked about the scale of infrastructure investment necessary to implement carbon sequestration on a national scale, while speaking at a National Petroleum Council event. Raymond’s response over a decade ago echoes concerns still expressed today, “it is a huge, huge undertaking… and the cost is going to be very, very significant.”

Years later, these issues still haunt large scale implementation of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Despite this reality, in the words of Raymond, industry has seen CCS as the “Holy Grail on coal-fired power plants,” especially in a carbon constrained world.

As Raymond said in 2007, industry has been utilizing EOR as a secondary removal technique for a long time, “But to go from that, quickly, to massive carbon sequestration for a power plant is a whole different animal.”

Raymond stressed the obstacles in implementing such a massive infrastructure buildout for a technology that “has never been demonstrated at scale.” Putting aside additional hurdles such as establishing a regulatory framework, Raymond summarized the sheer scale of the of the undertaking:

“…if you tried to inject all the supercritical CO2 that came from all the coal-fired power plants you end up moving more and [sp] liquids than the oil and gas industry moves today, just for CO2. So it is a huge, huge undertaking. And, again, people — this gets into a lot of the infrastructure issues, people just assume that that can happen. You can’t assume that’s going to happen. And the cost is going to be very, very significant.” In this context, “supercritical” means CO2 that has been supercooled and condensed to a liquid.

As the CEO of one of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers, Lee Raymond would have been well briefed on CCS research and its use to sequester anthropogenic CO2 emissions, a factor with serious implications for the longevity of his product in the face of carbon regulation. The similarity of his comments in 2007 to those of recently completed studies illustrate that not much has changed.

Posted by Climate Investigations Center