Get the Facts: Carbon Capture In the United States
There is a lot of misinformation circulating about U.S. carbon capture and storage (CCS), despite the widescale implementation of this technology having bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of the Biden administration and top energy and climate international organizations.
Recently, media coverage around CCS has prioritized voices that are perpetuating this misinformation, creating an unbalanced conversation and misleading consumers on a climate solution that has been elevated to the top of the public agenda.
Here is a list of the most common myths around carbon capture and how science and data backs it up:
Myth: Carbon capture is greenwashing and only perpetuates oil and gas business models.
FACT: There are a wide-range of potential applications for carbon capture beyond the energy sector.
While CCS will help to reduce emissions in the oil and natural gas development process, these technologies are applicable far beyond the production of energy, including in power generation, cement and steel industries, refineries and other manufacturing. The wide-ranging application potential means CCS can be strategically utilized to meet industrial processes’ abatement targets and global greenhouse gas reduction goals as heavy industries account for nearly 20 percent of global CO2 emissions.
The London School of Economics Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment stated in March 2023 that CCS offers a cost-effective option for deep decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors, notably cement production which produces almost 7 percent of the world’s emissions.
A 2021 MIT Energy Initiative analysis likewise concluded that the availability of industrial CCS in a 2°C policy benefits total industrial production, global, sectoral and regional emissions – specifically, industrial CCS allows for the removal of 90–99 percent of CO2 emissions from an industrial plant in both energy-related and process emissions. Authors stated:
“We find that in scenarios with stringent climate policy, CCS in the industry sector is a key mitigation option…”
Myth: Carbon capture is an unproven technology.
FACT: Carbon capture has been around for a century.
Carbon capture is not a novel technology. CCS has been in use for decades, first appearing in the 1920s as a method to separate CO2 from other marketable gases. What’s changed is that CCS was not considered a mainstream technology until recently so it may seem newer to the general public.
In the United States, the Department of Energy (DOE) has funded CCS research and development (R&D) since 1997 through its Fossil Energy and Carbon Management Research, Development, Demonstration, and Deployment program (FECM). And large-scale CCS operations have been going on in Norway since 1996.
Further, both the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) have provided CCS with the needed financial incentives that will help launch the technology at scale in the United States.
In fact, CCS-related infrastructure is projected to increase 13-fold by 2030 due to the IRA and other policies and regulations currently in place, according to a study by Princeton University.
Myth: Transporting CO2 via pipeline and storing it in large concentrations is a safety and environmental hazard.
FACT: Methods of transporting and storing CO2 have been proven safe.
A large body of research and decades of field operations show storing CO2 underground in deep geological rock formations is a safe and long-term solution to reducing emissions.
For instance, a 2015 Carnegie Mellon University study found “geologic carbon storage remains a safe option to mitigate anthropogenic climate change.” Today, CO2 is stored thousands of miles underground in saline formations or depleted oil and gas reservoirs with ideal storage characteristics, and far away from communities or potable water resources.
Similarly, concerns around potential earthquakes have been addressed by science. For example, the Global CCS Institute (GCCI) reported in 2016 that appropriately selected and characterized storage sites are unlikely to be adversely affected by induced seismicity, adding that data from multiple demonstration projects show that micro-seismic events from CO2 injection are relatively low in frequency and magnitude.
A more recent example comes from results of the Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project, commissioned by the Japanese government in the Hokkaido Islands to investigate candidate sites for implementing large-scale CCS in-country. Sited in a coastal region of Japan, a nation which sits atop one of the most seismically active areas on the globe, the project detected no micro-seismicity or natural earthquakes attributable to CO2 injection vicinity of the injection area over its nine-year lifecycle between 2012 and 2020.
Even more impressive was the proven durability and security of the storage project when the Hokkaido Eastern Earthquake struck nearby in 2018 with a magnitude of 6.6. Researchers confirmed the stored carbon was virtually unaffected.
Same applies to carbon capture-related infrastructure. A recent National Academies of Science report affirmed the safety of CO2 pipelines, stating:
“Pipelines have been built, utilized, and maintained to transport materials for over a century. While large-scale transportation of CO2 is somewhat novel, pipeline transport of CO2 has occurred safely for approximately 50 years.” (emphasis added)
And a separate, 2021 peer-reviewed study concluded “overall and operational risks for CO2 pipelines was less than that of other types of pipelines.” For perspective, pipelines have a 99.999 percent safety record for crude oil and natural gas reaching their destinations. As the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration explains:
“The nation’s more than 2.6 million miles of pipelines safely deliver trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of ton/miles of liquid petroleum products each year…Pipeline systems are the safest means to move these products.”
Myth: CCS deployment would advance environmental injustice.
FACT: CCS will provide a net benefit for communities through economic impact and reducing emissions.
At-scale deployment of CCS will contribute to job creation and financial growth through positive, direct and indirect economic impacts in low-income communities and surrounding areas.
Federal DOE funding requires CCS applicants to provide a Community Benefits Plan (CBP), outlining meaningful engagement with local communities and equitable resource distribution. DOE spokesperson Ramzey Smith said in an email to E&E News:
“DOE is committed to ensuring these projects adhere to all the principles of the Justice40 Initiative, will maximize the benefits to frontline communities, and identify and address the potential harms to communities that may result from DOE-funded projects.”
According to a February 2023 guidance – Creating a Community Benefits Plan for Carbon Capture Demonstration Projects – the DOE recommends CCS demonstration project CBPs invest in America’s workforce and include family-sustaining wages, paid family and medical leave, and other paid time off as indicators of job quality.
A 2019 National Petroleum Council report focused on CCS, Meeting the Dual Challenge, found that CCS-associated U.S. jobs could grow from initially around 10,000 per year to over 200,000 per year by 2050.
Targeted decarbonization efforts, through CCS, in traditionally underserved communities is also an opportunity. Ugbaad Kosar, director of environmental justice at Carbon180, wrote for The Hill:
“Carbon removal is at an impressionable stage of maturity as more players come to the table…I see a real opportunity for the U.S. government to work with local leadership, environmental justice advocates, labor groups, project developers and community-based organizations to both build a strong regulatory and oversight framework as well as empower community oversight boards to put protections in place.”
Further, state Class VI primacy applications require stringent environmental justice focuses. These requirements are underscored by the White House’s own Council of Environmental Quality guidance issued February 2022 prioritizing EJ best practices in CCS.
Myth: States are incompetent and lack the regulatory ability to properly analyze CCS applications. The EPA is making rushed decisions to offload responsibility.
FACT: States underground injection control (UIC) programs are often more stringent than federal regulations, accounting for unique geographies, and allow for faster approval processes.
State UIC primacy under the Safe Drinking Water Act – the same law governing CO2 storage wells – has been successfully executed for more than forty years.
Louisiana and most other major energy producing states have had primacy over Class II wells (and other classes) for decades.
While Class VI wells will require some differences in construction and monitoring, states are ready for assuming this authority. In fact, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards recently addressed local capabilities to handle primacy:
“We’ve added 70 new positions in Department of Conservation already. We also can go outside for consulting to do those permits. So although we’re not going to commit to that timeframe, we feel very strongly that we can really get these permits through the door and we have outside resources that we can utilize if need be.”
The EPA also determined Louisiana’s application meets all standards for approval, and in fact, Louisiana Department of Natural Resources expects their program to be stricter than the EPA’s.
Further carbon capture permit Class VI well primacy applications are consistently backlogged at the federal level.
Louisiana’s primacy application process, for example, began more than two years ago and is unlikely to be finalized until the end of 2023. Other states have begun the process but are still classified as “pre-application.” The EPA currently has more than 70 permit applications marked as “pending” for Class VI wells, but there are currently only two active Class VI wells that were approved by the EPA – and it took the agency more than three years to issue each of them. Zero Class VI permits have been issued since passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, despite the law incentivizing increased investment in CCS.
Bottom Line: Carbon capture has the potential to significantly reduce emissions in the energy sector and across a wide-range of hard to abate industries. The world is currently competing for companies to invest in these technologies within their borders – and the United States is no exception to this. Right now, the United States has the opportunity to lead on these innovations, setting the gold standard for emissions reductions without negative impacts to energy production and manufacturing.