Carbon capture and storage a costly, risky distraction

Background - 1 July, 2016
We know fossil fuels must be phased out to prevent catastrophic climate change. Yet coal, oil and gas companies claim they can make fossil fuels climate-friendly by burying emissions underground. They are betting their future (and our climate’s) on carbon capture and storage (CCS), an unproven, risky and expensive technology. Greenpeace opposes CCS as a dangerous distraction from the safe, secure 100 percent renewable energy future we all want.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) at a glance

Instead of phasing out dirty energy,[130] the fossil fuel industry suggests burying billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide underground to keep it from warming the planet.

Using carbon capture and storage (also called geosequestration or carbon sequestration) technologies, they claim to be able to capture carbon dioxide from power stations and industrial plant smokestacks, funnel it through pipelines, then store it permanently in underground rock formations and aquifers.  

An unproven and costly technology

A major problem with the fossil fuel’s industry plan is that CCS doesn’t work.  Only a handful of small-scale demonstration projects are operating. There isn’t a single commercial-scale power plant capturing and storing its emissions. The technology hasn’t advanced much since Greenpeace first assessed it back in 2008.

Instead, CCS is floundering.  High costs and technical issues have led to a wave of high profile project and program cancellations in recent years, more proof that this technology simply isn’t ready for prime time. Some of the more notable cancellations:

Even projects that have managed to achieve operation, and been heralded as successful, are plagued with problems. The troubled SaskPower coal-fired Boundary Dam project in Canada is just one example.

Cracks expose risks of carbon dioxide storage

To actually deliver reductions, the emissions captured and injected must stay underground permanently. If leaked back into the atmosphere, they would only make climate change worse and threaten people and animals.   

Attempts to store carbon dioxide underground have only highlighted the risks. Some examples:

  • In Salah, Algeria: One of the world's few-large scale CCS projects, In Salah [shut down indefinitely in 2011. The reason: injecting carbon dioxide into sandstone caused earthquakes. This cracked the denser overlaying rock (cap rock) that is meant to prevent the carbon dioxide from leaking out.

  • Sleipner, Norwegian North Sea: When scientists studied the seafloor at one of the world's oldest injection sites for carbon dioxide, they found huge fractures in the region the gas was stored, and many potential paths for leakage. They concluded it is likely carbon dioxide would eventually leak from the reservoir where it is now stored.

  • Mississippi, US: An oil company injecting carbon dioxide underground has experienced several well blowouts, which released large amounts of emissions back into the atmosphere. In one incident, the large amount of carbon dioxide released suffocated deer and other animals.

As if this wasn't enough, fossil fuel companies are actively lobbying to shift responsibility and liability for storing and monitoring buried emissions to the public.  Put simply, carbon dioxide storing is so risky that these polluting industries expect governments to step in and take responsibility for storage sites once they’ve closed. In the event of a leak, the people, not polluters would bear the consequences.

CCS is a waste of money

Another problem with CCS is the high cost of capturing, liquefying, transporting and burying carbon dioxide emissions.  CCS costs at least 40 percent more than solar, 125 percent more than wind, and 260 percent more than geothermal energy for each kilogram of carbon dioxide emissions avoided (per unit of electricity generated).  It is also costly in energy terms:  carbon capture and storage can cut an existing coal plant’s power output by as much as 40 percent.

CCS is such a bad deal industry doesn’t want to pay to make it work.  They expect the public to foot the bill.

But why should we spend public funds to prop up dirty, dying industries? We simply don't have time or money, especially when this takes investment away from clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency — the true industries of our future.

What about CCS for oil and gas recovery?

Industry has another use for CCS.  They take the captured carbon dioxide and use it to extract still more polluting fuels from oil and gas fields. The industry pumps the carbon dioxide into the ground to force out more oil and gas, a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) or Enhanced Gas Recovery (EGR).  Polluters like this approach to carbon storage because if they can sell their carbon pollution to oil and gas producers, this revenue could help reduce the high cost of CCS.

In other words, the fossil fuel industry wants to use its waste carbon dioxide to extract more oil and gas, which will be burned to produce more carbon pollution, fuelling climate change still further.

If you imagine this use of carbon dioxide is good for the climate, think again. It misses the entire supposed purpose of CCS because it likely has no climate benefit. What's more, the likelihood of permanently storing carbon dioxide in an oil or gas field punctured with multiple drilling wells is limited.

And let's face it. The oil and gas industry has a lousy track record when it comes to cleaning up after itself and being a responsible steward of the environment. When it comes to oil and gas drilling, wells are often abandoned or improperly sealed, in violation of regulations that are rarely enforced. After the BP oil spill disaster in the US, for example, 27,000 abandoned wells were found in the Gulf of Mexico, many of them not permanently or properly sealed.

Too many reasons to leave fossil fuels behind

Even if CCS worked, it would do nothing to address the many other environmental and public health problems fossil fuels cause.  Mining, drilling, transporting and burning fossil fuels would still pollute our air, lands and oceans.

In fact, CCS stands to make some of these problems even worse. It will increase demand on already strained water supplies. And carbon dioxide leaks from underwater storage sites could worsen ocean acidification.

Greenpeace campaigns for real solutions to climate change

Greenpeace was the first environmental organization to expose CCS as an expensive and risky distractionThere is no room for fossil fuels in a climate-safe future; the only way forward is to leave these dirty fuels behind.  

Greenpeace's Energy [R]evolution analysis shows we can make the leap to 100 percent renewable energy. Clean energy from the sunwind, earth and oceans can supply all our needs many times over. These safe, proven technologies are mainstream, growing fast, and already cheaper than dirty fossil fuel generation in many regions.  

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