Opinion: What’s Wrong With Carbon Capture?


The recent “super blue moon” rising over Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn, NY> Photo: Avni Jariwala.

Love, Justice and Climate Change

Russ Vernon-Jones

After lying to us for decades and continuing to expand the extraction, use, and export of fossil fuels when we need to be eliminating them altogether, the oil and gas industry has come up with yet another way to confuse the public and persist in their climate destroying practices–“carbon capture.” It would be great, of course, if we could pull large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, but current proposals to rely on the feeble, inefficient, expensive, existing technology for carbon removal as a key climate strategy, are disastrous and intentionally deceptive.

Forests do an excellent job of removing carbon from the atmosphere and we should preserve and expand them everywhere. On the other hand, current industrial carbon capture methods are “wildly expensive,” use a great deal of energy, and remove only “pathetically small” amounts of carbon. They are no where near to being a meaningful strategy for addressing the climate crisis.

The most rapid way to deal with climate change, and we do need to act rapidly, is to cut emissions by abandoning fossil fuels, increasing renewable energy generation, increasing energy efficiency, and reducing overall energy use. The problem is that the fossil fuel industry is using the idea of industrial carbon capture as an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels indefinitely, in increasing amounts.

Oil CEO Admits To Real Agenda
Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Hollub has been explicit about this. “We believe that our direct capture technology is going to be the technology that helps to preserve our industry over time,” she told an oil and gas conference in March. “This gives our industry a license to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years that I think is going to be very much needed.” IPCC author Glen Peters said Hollub’s views are “not consistent with the science”. Her views are a recipe for even greater climate disaster.   

Many scientists believe there will be two important roles for carbon capture. One, is that after we have transitioned everything we possibly can to renewable energy, there will likely still be a very small percentage of industrial processes that continue to require fossil fuels. Effective carbon capture will be needed to take the last steps to net zero. The other, is that after we get to zero emissions, we will still have way too much carbon in the atmosphere–the climate will still be massively disrupted–and any carbon we can pull out of the atmosphere will move us in the right direction.

Only If Emissions Are Drastically Reduced First
As climate writer Amy Westervelt reports, “when scientists talk about Direct Air Capture as a helpful technology—and they do! yay!—it is always, always with a very important caveat: it will only work to mitigate climate impacts if emissions are reduced first. As scientist David Ho put it in the journal Nature‘Drastically reduce emissions first, or carbon dioxide removal will be next to useless.’”

Why am I writing about this now? Two recent reports led me to try to learn more about carbon capture. One, is that the so-called Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill included $3.5 billion for carbon capture projects and the U.S. Department of Energy just awarded a sizable chunk of that to Occidental Petroleum (yes, the same oil company mentioned above) for a major project.

Another Oil Executive Seeks To Make It Central To International Policy
The second is that the president of the upcoming UN international climate conference (COP28), Al Jabar, who is an oil company executive (really?!), recently released his “action plan.” It has lots of talk about fossil fuel phase down, but only those fossil fuels that are “unabated.” Fossil fuels that are “abated,” that is, those that have some carbon capture or direct air capture associated with them, can, under his plan, continue and grow, regardless of the effectiveness of the removal scheme or the carbon it emits. Even more frightening is that the negotiators from European countries that have generally pushed hard for real cuts to fossil fuels are apparently considering accepting the idea that “abated” fossil fuels need not be phased out.

Jonathan Foley, of the Drawdown Project, lists six reasons why carbon capture should not be considered as a key strategy for reducing emissions at this point in our history.

  1. It is far more expensive than transitioning to renewable energy–a waste of taxpayer money that could instead be used to build a green energy system.
  2. Industrial carbon removal is “comically undersized”–able to compensate for mere seconds worth of our annual emissions.
  3. Industrial carbon capture is energy intensive–requiring the use more, not less, fossil fuel energy.
  4. The carbon dioxide captured is often pumped into the ground in order to get more oil out–resulting in increased, not decreased, oil production and qualifying (against all reason) for government subsidies for the additional oil pumped.
  5. Even if it could scale up enough to have a positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions, it would do nothing to reduce the other air pollution produced by burning fossil fuels (which kills an estimated 8.7 million people per year globally).
  6. It provides a huge disinformation public relations benefit to the fossil fuel industry–allowing it to further greenwash its climate destroying practices, and deceive the public once again.

Let’s not be deceived by the fossil fuel companies. Let’s watch out for their false claims about carbon capture. Let’s join with others to push consistently for phasing out fossil fuels altogether and getting our homes, communities, and nations fully powered by renewable energy.

Russ Vernon-Jones was principal of Fort River School 1990-2008 and is currently a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now-Western Massachusetts. He blogs regularly on climate justice at www.russvernonjones.org.

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