Carbon capture, utilization, and storage has no place in a just transition
As the impacts of the climate crisis grow more pressing and the damages more acute, those with a vested interest in maintaining the extractive status quo are leaning ever harder on technological non-solutions that will allow them to continue to extract fossil fuels and emit carbon while pretending to be environmentally safe.
Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies are one of the key workarounds that fossil fuel emitters use to slap a veneer of environmental sustainability on their environmentally destructive projects.
Let’s be very clear: carbon capture, utilization, and storage is NOT a climate solution. It’s a prime example of greenwashing, a technology that creates the appearance of sustainability while, in practice, locking us into a fossil fuel-filled future.
Canada has already poured billions of taxpayer dollars into the CCUS fantasy, delaying the moment when we can kick fossil fuels for good. That’s money that could have been spent on a just transition. It’s too late to get that time and money back, but there’s still time to put the fantasy of CCUS to bed for good and devote ourselves to a genuine just transition.
What is carbon capture, utilization, and storage?
The basic premise of CCUS is that carbon dioxide (CO2) from industrial processes is “captured” through a variety of processes, such as absorption, chemical looping, or membrane gas separation and then sequestered in geological formations or as mineral carbonites.
While the words “carbon capture” suggest that these facilities “capture” carbon from the atmosphere and use or store it, they don’t actually remove CO2. At best, CCUS facilities prevent some fraction of CO2 from being released from fossil fueled processes. But even there, the technology fails to do what it promises. Existing CCUS facilities have overpromised and underdelivered when it comes to how much CO2 they’re capturing. While many claim capture rates of up to 90 per cent, few are able to achieve even 80 per cent. Some CCUS projects, like Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam, which is the longest-running (and world’s only) commercial carbon-capture facility at a coal-fired power plant, are capturing less than half of the emissions they’re supposed to be capable of capturing.
Not only does CCUS fail to effectively and reliably remove CO2 from the atmosphere, the majority of CO2 “captured” by such facilities is used to produce more CO2-emitting products. Almost all existing CCUS projects are tied to a practice called “enhanced oil recovery” or EOR. EOR requires CO2 to be injected into depleted oil reservoirs to boost production, essentially breathing new life into near-dead reservoirs. EOR results in more oil being produced and burned, and more CO2 pumped into the atmosphere.
Finally, there is new evidence showing that “industrial carbon removal” is a net-contributor to carbon emissions. A recent paper published in the Journal of Biophysical Economics and Sustainability states: “We found that the commercial ICR [industrial carbon removal] methods being incentivized by governments are net CO2 additive: CO2 emissions exceed removals.”
More than 400 climate scientists, academics, and energy experts wrote an open letter to the federal government in April 2022 calling on it not to follow through on its proposed CCUS tax credit, “because it will constitute a substantial new fossil fuel subsidy.” They pointed out that, “introducing a tax credit for [carbon capture, utilization and storage] for the energy sector will lock in continued dependence on Canada’s largest and most rapidly growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.”
How is CCUS being applied in Canada?
Numerous new fossil fuel proposals include gestures toward using CCUS to reduce emissions associated with further extraction and export of fossil fuels. Companies behind liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects like Goldboro LNG and Placentia Bay LNG argue that CCUS will be an essential feature in these new facilities, but evidence shows that just won’t work.
It was exposed in early 2022, that Shell’s Quest CCS facility in Alberta is emitting more than it captures.
People in Canada should be suspicious of any corporate claims of net-zero emissions that rely on CCUS to get there – the evidence just doesn’t support that claim.
The risks of CCUS don’t end with its failure to live up to the hype
Transporting and storing CO2 also poses environmental risks of its own. It requires a maze of pipelines connected to underground injection sites, each with their own set of dangers. Pipelines can leak or rupture; in the event of rupture, compressed CO2 is highly hazardous and can result in the asphyxiation of humans and animals.
Underground storage poses additional risks, such as potential leakage, contamination of drinking water, and stimulation of seismic activity. These hazards apply to all the current and proposed variants utilizing CCS technologies, including carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS), fossil hydrogen with CCS (“blue” or decarbonized hydrogen), bioenergy with CCS (BECCS), coal-bioenergy systems with CCS (CBECCS), waste-to-energy with CCS (WtE-CCS), and direct air capture (DAC), which depends on CCS or CCUS to manage the captured carbon.
These facilities also pose environmental risks to communities already suffering the most from the impacts of extractive capitalism. Last year, the U.S. White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council stated that CCUS “will not” (emphasis in original) benefit communities, especially communities that are already marginalized by race, class, and/or Indigeneity. Despite this, these communities (which are already overwhelmingly impacted by pollution and environmental degradation) have been the targets of CCUS projects, creating further health risks.
What CCUS does is give fossil fuel producers a blank cheque to continue emitting, even as the best climate science tells us we must rapidly phase out fossil fuels in order to secure a livable future. The only way to meet the emissions targets necessary to secure that future is to keep fossil fuels in the ground in the first place. We cannot afford to spend another second or another public dollar entertaining technologies that prolong our dependence on fossil fuels.