The False Promise of Carbon Capture as a Climate Solution

Fossil-fuel companies use captured carbon dioxide to extract more fossil fuels, leading to a net increase in atmospheric CO2

Last December the leaders of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai declared victory as the parties agreed to “transition away” from fossil fuels. But there's a big issue that will remain contentious as countries try to define what counts as a transition: so-called unabated fossil-fuel use. Among its provisions, the agreement called for “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power.”

Abatement in this context means carbon capture and storage (CCS). It's the idea that we can still use fossil fuels as long as the carbon dioxide emitted is captured and stored in the ground. In the U.S., the oil and gas industries have been pushing this approach as one of the key solutions to the climate crisis. But how realistic is it?

Let's start with a few facts. Oil is sticky stuff, and when you try to pump it out of a reservoir, most of it gets left behind, stuck to the rocks. But if you flood a field with water, detergents or gas (such as CO2), you can flush out much of the remaining oil. This technique is known as enhanced oil recovery, and it's been standard industry practice for a long time. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, gas injection accounts for more than half of the enhanced oil recovery in the U.S. and has helped to add decades of life to fields that would otherwise by now have run dry. The same approach is used in gas fields to maintain the pressure that keeps the gas flowing.

In recent years the oil industry has tried to pour this old wine into new bottles, casting the practice as a method of mitigating climate change because some of the injected CO2 might otherwise end up in the atmosphere. In theory, it's a good idea. In practice, there are big problems.

We all know the saying that what goes up must come down, but the opposite is largely true, too (at least if the materials involved are liquid or gas), because fluids migrate through the microscopic holes and fractures that are found in even the most solid of rocks. After the U.S. government spent billions evaluating a potential civilian nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the proposal failed in part because scientists could not guarantee that the waste would stay put. That waste was mostly a mix of solids and liquids. The waste CO2 that we would be storing to stop climate change would be a buoyant, low-viscosity “supercritical” fluid—that is, a fluid maintained at such a high temperature and pressure that distinct gas and liquid phases do not exist. Like all fluids, it would have the capacity to migrate through the ground and find its way back to the surface and, from there, the atmosphere.

Many geologists (myself included) believe there are places on Earth where long-term CO2 storage could be safely achieved, but it would require what scientists call “site characterization.” That means studying the location in enough detail to be confident that things put there will stay there. For example, the U.S. currently stores military radioactive waste in low-permeability salt formations in New Mexico, and there are numerous pending proposals to store CO2 in sandstones overlain by low-permeability shales in North Dakota.

But site characterization takes time that we don't have. The DOE spent more than 20 years evaluating Yucca Mountain. It spent some 14 years studying the New Mexico site. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in 2018 that we have only until 2030 to stop irreversible climate damage, so it's urgent that we focus our attention on solutions that can be implemented right now.

We could jump-start the project by expanding existing carbon capture and storage sites. The problem, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Charles Harvey and entrepreneur Kurt House have explained, is that nearly all CCS projects in the U.S. are actually enhanced-recovery projects that keep the oil and gas flowing, and every new barrel of oil and cubic foot of gas sold and burned is putting more CO2 into the atmosphere. So not only do these kinds of projects not help, but they perpetuate our use of fossil fuels at a critical moment in history when we need to do the opposite.

Despite the U.S. government having spent billions on failed CCS projects, under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), it is set to spend many billions more, a lot of it in tax subsidies to fossil-fuel companies. In theory, IRA tax credits are to be used for “secure” carbon storage, but the mechanisms for ensuring that CO2 is not leaking back into the atmosphere are flimsy at best. And it gets worse: the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that if the price of CCS falls—because of tax credits, for example, or economies of scale—some currently closed oil or gas fields might reopen.

There is another model for CCS: the Orca plant in Iceland, where CO2 is taken directly from the air and dissolved in water, which then reacts with basalt—the rock that makes up both Iceland and the ocean floor—to create stable carbonate minerals. But it's wildly expensive: $1,200 per metric ton of captured CO2. (Bill Gates has negotiated a bulk deal for Microsoft at “only” $600 per ton.) The U.S. produces about 6,000 million metric tons of CO2 per year. If for ease of arithmetic we assume a cost of $1,000 per ton, then offsetting U.S. emissions would cost about $6 trillion every year. In time these costs will probably come down, but time is what we don't have.

It is said that Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization. He replied, “It would be a good idea.” The same could be said about carbon capture and storage as a solution to the climate crisis. Although it might be part of the solution down the road, right now it's mostly a dangerous distraction. Our focus—and our tax dollars—should be trained on scaling up production of cost-competitive renewable energy, grid-scale batteries for storing that energy and efficiency measures to conserve it as fast as we possibly can.

Cover photo: Credit: Izhar Cohen