The Great Carbon Capture Scam
The CCS agenda is full of hot air.
While I was freezing my butt off in Fargo, North Dakota, in January recovering from surgery (no other reason to be there that horrible time of year) I had the dubious pleasure of listening to Republican Governor Doug Burgum speak of the wonders of carbon capture, utilization, and storage, or CCS.
In his annual address to the legislature, Burgum said the state was set to be a leader in the practice. “Several projects in the works will capture over 20 million tons [of carbon dioxide] by 2026.... We're on our way toward achieving carbon neutrality as a state by 2030,” he proudly proclaimed. Lots of wrongs in that short statement. And they don’t make a right.
For one, North Dakota is such a sparsely populated state (albeit with large fossil fuel production) that it doesn’t produce much CO2 in the first place It is 33rd in the country. As to the “20 million” figure, it has nothing to do with actually capturing CO2 but rather the capacity of North Dakota land to store that amount. Yes, the state has an abundance of deep saline aquifers, depleted oil and gas reservoirs, and rock strata good for trapping the gas.
So what? Any sized garage can store all the platinum ever mined. Acquiring the platinum? Aye, there’s the rub! That is, doing so at a price one can afford.
The only current carbon capturing in the state, an ethanol processing facility, is projected to eventually sequester a mere 180,000 metric tons. Then we have “Project Tundra,” plagued by cost and time overruns. It’s claimed it will ultimately capture 3.5 million tons of CO2 annually from a coal plant so old it should be on the shuttering list anyway. The latest proposal has the plant operational by 2025, but given its history even that’s doubtful.
So the state will be capturing essentially zero tons by 2026 and well on its way to capturing zero more tons by 2030.
But I’m picking on Burgum, whom personal mutual friends tell me is actually quite tech-savvy. Everywhere, CCS is a massive scam.
Even though the first large projects go back over half a century, it has had and will have negligible impact on CO2 levels. “Of the nine demonstration projects funded by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) advanced fossil energy research program between 2010 and 2017, totaling roughly $1.12 billion,” according to IEEE Spectrum in 2020, “only one power plant-based one remains operational today,” the 240-MW Petra Nova facility. It closed a few months after.
Between 2005 and 2012 the DOE spent $6.9 billion attempting to demonstrate the feasibility of CCS for coal but almost nothing came of this investment, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
CCS serves but one purpose: rent seeking. To transfer money from Joe Sixpack to Bob Billionaire.
Yet in May the DOE announced it was beginning to disburse more than $2.3 billion for CCS technology as part of the $12 billion allocated in the Infrastructure and Jobs Act of 2021. Nobody pretends this will accomplish anything in and of itself. It is essentially a series of experimental projects as DOE aims to help bring the cost of carbon removal technologies down to less than $100 a ton by 2050. As is, it’s a ridiculously long timeline—in the spirit of commercial fusion that is always just 30 years away.
And even at that “deep deep discount price” the five billion metric tons the U.S. emitted last year would cost half a trillion bucks to capture‚ and that only if it were all being emitted by large CO2-emitting facilities. In other words, just the low hanging fruit.
Currently the excruciating cost has kept total world CCS capacity to only 43 metric tons annually. Consider that global emissions are now at an all-time high of 36.8 gigatons, each gigaton being a billion metric tons. Further, global emissions keep increasing because of China. Consider reducing the flow from Niagara Falls with a teaspoon, except the flow is always increasing.
The optimistic predictions of the U.S. capturing and sequestering four percent of carbon emissions by 2035 will be unmeasurable in terms of world emissions and certainly in temperatures according to any model.
But let’s continue beating this horse. Animal rights groups shouldn’t care about dead ones.
The way direct air or point source capture works (we’ll get around to indirect) is post-combustion, pre-combustion, or oxy-fuel combustion. The first takes CO2 from the exhaust gases after fuel combustion, typically using chemical solvents or adsorbents. The second removes CO2 before the fuel is burned by converting it into a mixture of hydrogen and CO2, which are separated using various processes. Finally, oxy-fuel combustion comprises burning fuel in pure oxygen instead of air, resulting in a flue gas predominantly composed of CO2 and water vapor, which makes the carbon dioxide more easily captured and separated.
Whatever the method, ultimately the CO2 must be injected deep underground into geological formations for long-term storage and subsequently monitored to ensure containment.
Let’s beat the horse some more.
Running a carbon capture system is incredibly energy-intensive, essentially requiring building a new power plant to run the system. This obviously creates another new source of air and carbon pollution since the U.S. no longer builds nuclear plants and even when it did never built them that small. This extra energy use undermines the whole goal of capturing carbon in the first place. Indeed, while the U.S. emits roughly 5 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year, removing 1 billion tons of that through direct air capture would require nearly the entire electricity output of the nation, according to research published in Biophysical Economics and Sustainability.
Alas, poor horse, we knew him well.
Okay, this dead horse we’ve been beating, obviously someone likes it for some reason. Who and why?
Those financially benefiting from it, of course: rent seekers and their politician cronies. They try to secure government grants, subsidies, or financial incentives designed to support carbon capture projects. Direct subsidies obviously encourage CCSs, but so do indirect ones via carbon credits. When possible, they exploit carbon credit markets, where carbon offsets or credits are traded.
Carbon credits are certificates representing quantities of greenhouse gases kept out of the air or removed from it. By paying someone else to either reduce their emissions or capture their carbon, companies can compensate for their “carbon footprint.” Carbon credits can help companies offset their emissions and direct private financing to climate-action projects that would not otherwise get off the ground. Europe has a formal carbon-trading program, while the U.S. doesn’t. Yet. But the country does have a federal tax credit program introduced in 2008, while California alone has a formal cap and trade program.
Basically we’re talking about established companies that provide or burn fossil fuels such as ExxonMobil. “Managing greenhouse gas emissions,” Chevron declared, “is an integral part of how Chevron plans and executes its business.” Or we’re talking newer businesses that spring up exclusively to take advantage of the subsidies, doing well while allegedly doing good. When gold is discovered (or handed out in nice boxes with a pink ribbon), expect a gold rush.
It is not particularly strange to find rent seeking piled atop other rent seeking like turtles. Thus almost all of the proposed North Dakota capture will be from ethanol plants, a boondoggle I’ve been writing about since 1987. So add ethanol producers to Big Fossil Fuel. But wait, it can get a whole lot worse than the direct air capture discussed so far.
There’s something else called “indirect air capture.” Compared to direct, it is essentially the difference between putting a catalytic converter on a vehicle and putting it in the middle of nowhere. That’s a metaphor I thought I had invented until I stumbled on an MIT article making the same one—claiming it was a positive development. So much for my good faith effort at satire.
And sure enough, $3.5 billion in the recently approved carbon capture subsidies are for just that. If the government announced billions for developing anti-gravity boots, it would be besieged by stacks of ideas for anti-gravity boots. None would work, of course, but that’s not really the point. Meanwhile, anti-grav boot producers and their boosters would claim that the cost of making their boots is steadily declining. Never mind that they still didn’t work.
The most efficient method of direct carbon capture is one we’re all quite familiar with: planting trees or other plants that even more efficiently absorb CO2. Better yet is not cutting them down in the first place. The planting aspect is a great gimmick. But worldwide major projects have systematically failed. There’s just not enough land area in the world to begin to do the trick. And if the trees are harvested—whoops—the emissions captured go right back into the atmosphere.
Ultimately, the only way to reduce atmospheric CO2 is to stop producing it entirely. Yet for all the treaties and gimmicks, each year the world produces more because we like the things CO2 gives us, as do the Chinese. And with China’s growing contribution, the entire rest of the world could stop emitting it entirely and yet the amount would increase dramatically.
Even if we stopped all emissions, what is already there would only dissipate or be absorbed over a period of centuries. Nonetheless, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has encouraged the CCS scam because most IPCC climate models require CCS to balance the carbon books.
So really, it appears there’s just not much to be done.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
I’m not without hope. I’ve written elsewhere about the tremendous impact artificial intelligence and computers generally will have in the next decade. I don’t doubt that they will find incredible methods to at least reduce emissions, including providing commercial fusion not only to supply the grid but also to improve electric vehicles. That said, CCS must be physically possible. Bummer, that.
If we perceive anthropogenic global warming as a real problem, there are a number of imperfect fixes we can make while we wait for the computers. The go-to guy on that is Bjørn Lomborg, the “Skeptical Environmentalist” who accepts anthropomorphic global warming but says we’re doing everything wrong in dealing with it. Yes, trees (plus other foliage that’s far better at CO2 absorption) could be part of it, if people took it seriously. Those are indeed working CSS technology.
But the mechanical stuff? It’s only good for the rich and connected to buy off politicians to help them capture subsidies. The “S” in CCS really stands for “scam.”