by Emma Young
**This piece is a shorter version of Emma Young’s essay, which received an Honorable Mention in the 2019 Greene Prize for Environmental Writing by an undergraduate.**
As we look into the future of energy, we must consider the inevitable question of sustainability. As this conversation grows, proposals increasing the use of carbon capture have emerged as viable solutions to our issue of climate change. Although it occurs in nature, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as referred to in this essay denotes the set of technologies that capture carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources and then transport it to underground rock formations. These plants operate by burning fossil fuels into steam that turns the turbine and generates electricity. The CCS component adds a scrubbing step at the end which potentially reduces the plant’s CO2 emissions by a dramatic 80-90% (“Carbon Dioxide Capture and Sequestration”). While carbon sequestration has surfaced as a promising solution to climate change, its potential costs and negative consequences remain largely unspoken about. While CCS seemingly creates a more sustainable world, its net effect may not be positive. In addition to increasing costs and environmental damage, widespread use of carbon sequestration may simply allow for a greater dependence on fossil fuels.
The greatest limitation of mainstream use of CCS is the financial burden it imposes. Unsurprisingly, adding scrubbers onto a plant adds a large cost that the energy industry is reluctant to stomach. These costs have been illuminated by power plants who chose to implement the new technology. One of the most significant advances in the field was the opening of the coal power and CCS plant in Saskatchewan. The CCS unit alone “cost $800 million to build and consumes 21 percent of the coal plant’s power output in order to scrub out the carbon dioxide and compress it into a liquid for burial” (Talbot). The economic infeasibility of carbon sequestration has caused advocates to turn to policymakers in hopes that the government can incentivize CCS projects. In February 2018, President Trump signed a budget bill allowing for some of these provisions. The new measure allowed for substantial tax credits ($50) to be applied to every ton of carbon buried underground as well as a lower tax credit amount ($35) for each ton of carbon “put to work in other ways” (Temple). While this allows for some projects that might have otherwise been implausible, the credit will not affect all industries equally. For example, a coal powered plant can expect to pay around $60 per ton of carbon capture while the price floats around $70 for natural gas plants. Alternatively, in industries such as steel and cement production, that price is $100 (despite those industries being major emitters). The tax credit clearly has a disproportionate effect on the various industries (Temple). Taken together, industry in the US is responsible for 22% of our greenhouse gas emissions, and most of that comes from burning fossil fuels (“Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions”). If these industries cannot engage in CCS due to cost, there is likely utility in considering other avenues to decrease that share of emissions.
Despite carbon capture’s role in the battle against climate change, there is also a concern about the negative consequences that its use has directly on the environment. Unsurprisingly, CCS plants use around 20% more energy which can indirectly increase emissions through the process of extracting and transporting the carbon. The negative impacts on the air as a result of the processes include increases in particulate matter and Nitrogen Oxide as well as a three-fold increase in levels of ammonia emitted from energy plants. The ammonia levels also lead to the formation of particulate matter, an especially dangerous form of air pollution that can enter the respiratory system and potentially degrade human health. In accommodating these increased energy needs, the mining and transport of fuels like coal will produce its own set of known environmental damages (“The Negatives of Carbon Capture and Storage”). Another host of issues emerge when considering the likely occurrence of gradual leakage of CO2 from the pipelines transporting it and the reservoirs containing it. This could stem from incorrectly choosing a site or from a failure to prepare it correctly, and the limited use of CCS means that we cannot understand the true reliability of storage sites. The leakage of C02 underground can harm surrounding plants and animals and potentially contaminate groundwater and cause acidification in aquifers (Vinca et al.). Because the principal intention of carbon capture is to better the environment, the environmental costs imposed by carbon capture should be considered when determining the sustainability of the solution.
Another major concern about proliferating CCS methods questions the behavior that it inherently encourages. With the exception of some new technology that attempts to pull carbon straight from the air, CCS technology is intended for plants burning fossil fuel. In marrying itself to the fossil fuel industry, tax credits and incentives for CCS directly benefit industries many environmental advocates want distance from. This is money spent that could be dedicated towards developing better technology for harvesting renewable energy sources, as well as making those sources economically feasible. In addition, carbon sequestration can actually be used to harvest more fossil fuels, seemingly contradicting the original intention of the technology. Large projects are beginning to notice this, such as NET Power’s natural gas plant outside Houston. They have captured public attention as they attempt to capture 100% of carbon emissions produced by the plant in an economical way. Their lower cost has been achieved by utilizing “commercial uses for that captured CO2, like plastics, chemicals and building materials. One of the biggest uses for CO2, however, is enhanced oil recovery: injecting carbon dioxide into the earth to help extract greater quantities of fossil fuels” (Jeffries). Using the environmental initiative of scrubbing natural gas of CO2 in order to pull out excess oil from the ground can seem counterintuitive. If implementing carbon sequestration undercuts greater efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and consume less energy in general, there needs to be a thorough discourse as to its net consequence.
The prospect of carbon capture promises an idealistic world where we can avoid climate disaster while maintaining our current energy industries. However, creating a sustainable world requires more than simply adding scrubbers to existing coal and natural gas power plants. Since CCS use can directly degrade the environment and encourage continued dependence on fossil fuels, we must factor these externalities into the high cost of carbon sequestration that invariably burdens public funds. While there are some merits to the technology, resources are likely better dedicated to solutions with greater net gain and more sustainable outcomes.
“Carbon Dioxide Capture and Sequestration: Overview.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 6 Jan. 2017, archive.epa.gov/epa/climatechange/carbon-dioxide-capture-and-sequestration-overview.html.
Jeffries, Alan. “This Power Plant Has Cracked Carbon Capture.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 3 July 2018, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-07-03/this-power-plant-has-cracked-carbon-capture.
“The Negatives of Carbon Capture and Storage.” Climate Vision RSS, 26 July 2015, climatevision.co.uk/the-negatives-of-carbon-capture-and-storage.
“Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 11 Apr. 2018, www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions.
Talbot, David. “Carbon Sequestration: Too Little, Too Late?” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 13 Oct. 2014, www.technologyreview.com/s/531531/carbon-sequestration-too-little-too-late/.
Temple, James. “The Carbon-Capture Era May Finally Be Starting.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 20 Feb. 2018, www.technologyreview.com/s/610296/the-carbon-capture-era-may-finally-be-starting/.
Vinca, Adriano, et al. “Bearing the Cost of Stored Carbon Leakage.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 24 Apr. 2018, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenrg.2018.00040/full.