Climate change pressures have been mounting for roughly a century, threatening the globe with catastrophic weather events and resource instability. Increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases have led to these changes. And the use of fossil fuels has been recognized as one of the major culprits contributing these developments. One potential solution (other than a move to renewable, sustainable energy forms) involves sequestering the carbon dioxide produced. Often referred to as carbon capture and storage, this has been proposed as a way to slow unwanted climate change. And policies have increasingly awarded government energy subsidies toward these efforts.
In recent developments, trends favoring carbon capture and storage have advanced even further. As part of the Inflation Reduction Act, massive government energy subsidies will continue to support this strategy. Assumably, this will reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and lead to greater climate stability. But as always, the devil is in the details. Rather than serving to improve climate change and reduce dependence on fossil fuels, these policies will have the exact opposite effect. But that’s not stopping many in the fossil fuel industry to tout carbon capture and storage as the best climate change solution. The benefits these new policies offer are simply too good to pass up.
“…the concern I’m hearing from people — and I think this is a legitimate concern — is that this could start us down the path of major [carbon capture and storage] projects that lock in fossil fuel infrastructure rather than transition it responsibly to a different direction.” – Danny Cullenward, policy director of CarbonPlan
The Truth about Carbon Capture and Storage
The basic process in terms of carbon capture and storage is exactly what one might expect. Carbon dioxide is captured before being released into the atmosphere. Then, it is pumped underground and stored to prevent its release. From a climate change perspective, this sounds quite attractive. But what isn’t often appreciated is the industries using these techniques and reaping government energy subsidies in the process. Specifically, coal, oil, and natural gas industries account for more than 90% of the companies utilizing this process. In the process, are receiving billions of dollars in government energy subsidies that can be reinvested into their own infrastructures.
In US companies producing natural gas, carbon dioxide is separated from methane during the refining process. This carbon dioxide, which is captured by definition, is then pumped underground. However, the purpose of pumping it underground isn’t necessarily to store it away from the atmosphere. The actual use of this carbon is to further extract hidden oil reserved underground to produce higher volumes of oil. Of all the projects involved in carbon capture and storage, four companies producing natural gas and oil account for 70%. Thus, instead of actually slowing fossil fuel production, carbon capture and store is actually incentivizing its growth.
“If we are truly committed to a just transition off of fossil fuels, we should not be looking for ways to perpetuate oil extraction in old oil fields.” – Catherine Garoupa White, Executive
Legislative Policies and Subsidy Changes
When it comes to government energy subsidies, there’s a long history involving carbon capture and storage. Over the years, the federal government has funded several such projects and provided tax credits as well. One project in Mississippi, the Kemper Power Project, received over $7.5 billion in support. Yet, it failed in 2017 with the carbon capture plant being demolished in 2021. Other similar projects have also been reported in Illinois, Texas and California. And of all the programs supported, a very small minority have succeeded. The net result is that billions of taxpayer dollars have been squandered with little to nothing to show for it.
Recently, the Inflation Reduction Act has been signed into law, and with it comes even more carbon capture and storage support. While the legislation does advance renewable energy investments, it continues to support carbon capture projects. In fact, government energy subsidies were significantly increased over prior levels. They went from $35 per metric ton of carbon capture and storage to $60 per metric ton. Despite so many past failures in these types of efforts, financial supports were increased. And this even occurred in the face of declining costs for developing renewable energy sources. From this perspective, it seems that the nation’s energy policies are continuing to waste precious investment dollars. This is hardly an effective plan for climate change and certainly not one for a sustainable energy future.
“I think we have to tip the balance to more direct emission reductions…I’m concerned that we’re unwittingly extending the life and production and consumption of fossil fuels.”- Davina Hurt, Member of the Air Resources Board
A More Logical Approach to Energy Policy
In considering a more rationale energy policy approach, it’s clear that green energy renewables cannot fully support national needs. Embracing renewables too aggressive will undoubtedly cause more harm than good in the near-term. In this regard, natural gas and oil energy is needed to meet consumer demand. And clean energy efforts must be pursued to reduce carbon emissions along the way. But time and time again, carbon capture and storage pursuits have failed. Now, with increases in government energy subsidies, resources will again be allocated in ways that are counterproductive. Carbon sequestering offers limited advantages, and they are now being used to boosts industries that should be cutting back. For everyone and especially policymakers, it’s important we ignore the hype and focus on what’s realistic for our energy future.