Climate change requires urgent action. According to the IPCC, humankind cannot emit more than 1,000 giga-tonnes of CO2 starting now, if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. At current and projected rates of consumption, this entire carbon budget will be used by 2040. Protecting the climate means decarbonising the energy sector as quickly as possible.
Enter carbon capture and storage (CCS)
CCS refers to a range of mostly demonstration-stage technologies designed to capture the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels and industrial processes and store it permanently in underground geological formations and aquifers. In doing so, the hope is to mitigate the climate impact of fossil fuels.
But does it work?
Not quite. While a handful of small scale projects demonstrate that parts of the CCS mechanism have gotten off the ground in recent years, the technology hasn't advanced much since Greenpeace first took a look at the technology back in 2008. In fact, the world has yet to see a fully integrated CCS project in the power sector come online.
What we have seen, however, is a series of high profile projects cancellations and the floundering of industry efforts to mainstream the technology. This is due, in part, to the very high cost of CCS.
In 2013, for example, Norway cancelled the Mongstad project after significant cost overruns and delays; the US government has pulled the plug (again) on its once promising FutureGen CCS facility, due to money troubles; and major European utilities have this year dropped out of the EU carbon capture platform citing cost concerns.
Even projects that have managed to achieve operation, and been heralded a success, have been later revealed to be plagued with problems. SaskPower's coal-fired Bounday Dam project in Canada is just one example.
What's the concern with CCS?
For CCS to deliver, the CO2 captured and buried would need to stay underground permanently. That's quite a gamble as CO2 leaking back into the atmosphere would only exacerbate climate change and could lead to other impacts.
Projects aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of permanently storing carbon dioxide underground have encountered difficulties in recent years, further underscoring the risks of CCS.
The In Salah project in Algeria, one of the few large scale CCS projects in the world, shut down indefinitely back in 2011 because the CO2 injection itself caused seismic activity that cracked the cap rock.
Developments at the Sleipner sub-seabed storage project in the Norwegian North Sea have also raised concerns in recent years; the discovery of fractures in the vicinity of the storage project creates the possibility that CO2 could eventually leak into the surrounding waters. A separate non-CO2 sub-seabed storage project operated by the same company that manages Sleipner, Statoil, has also had trouble keeping things underground in recent years.
Other concerns with CCS include:
- The costs needed to develop and demonstrate the technology
- The fact that companies want your tax dollars to pay for that development
- Liability risks around stored CO2; who pays to mitigate leaks and who is responsible for storage sites over the long-term (again, companies want governments to step in here)
The fact that CCS does nothing to mitigate the range of other environmental and public health impacts associated with the mining, drilling, transport and combustion of fossil fuels (and in some cases, could exacerbate them)
What about CCS with oil and gas recovery?
Another energy sector application for CCS is to use captured CO2 to improve the production of oil and gas fields. This is a process of pumping CO2 into the ground to force oil and gas out. This practice is often referred to as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) or Enhanced Gas Recovery (EGR). CCS proponents favor this approach to carbon storage because the sale of the CO2 for use in oil fields provides a revenue stream to better balance CCS project economics.
But using CO2 to enhance the extraction of fossil fuels that are then burned likely has no climate benefit (also see this Grist analysis). What's more, the prospect of keeping CO2 underground in an oil or gas field punctured with multiple 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. An investigation by the Associated Press following the BP oil spill disaster in the US, for example, found 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf of Mexico, many of which had not been permanently sealed.
If you think using CO2 in the oil and gas sector is good for the climate, think again.
If not CCS, then what?
The real solutions to stopping dangerous climate change today is renewable energy and energy efficiency. Huge reductions in energy demand are possible with efficiency measures that save more money than they cost to implement.
Technically accessible renewable energy sources – such as wind, wave and solar- are capable of providing six times more energy than then world currently consumes – forever. What's more, unlike CCS, renewable energy costs continue to decline such that renewables are already cost competitive with fossil fuels in places like the desert southwest of the US, Germany and Denmark.
Greenpeace's Energy [R]evolution shows how 100% renewable energy for all is achievable by 2050 with no need for CCS or other false hope technologies such as nuclear power.
Carbon Capture SCAM, Greenpeace USA, 2015
Dead and Buried: The Demise of Carbon Capture and Storage, Greenpeace Australia, 2012
Reality Check on Carbon Storage, Greenpeace International, 2009.
False Hope: Why carbon capture and storage won't save the climate, Greenpeace International, 2008.
Carbon Capture and Storage at a glance
Overview of geological storage options
Leakage pathways and potential impacts of CO2 escape