Carbon Capture and Storage
A Dangerous Climate Scam Putting People at Risk
Carbon capture and storage — aka CCS, or sometimes CCUS — is a dangerous delay tactic championed by the fossil fuel industry and other polluters, like the biomass industry. It takes resources away from the needed transition to clean, cheaper renewable energy like wind and solar.
CCS is a process for diverting some of the carbon dioxide, or CO2, released from smokestacks. Using a lot of energy, the CO2 is then compressed and pushed under high pressure through pipelines. Globally 80% of the CO2 captured at CCS facilities is then used to extract oil through “enhanced oil recovery,” worsening the climate crisis. When burned, that oil produces more CO2 in a vicious cycle that generates yet more greenhouse gases and other toxic pollutants.
Even when CCS isn’t used to extract oil, the process involves the dangerous step of injecting and storing captured CO2 underground. The industry has a long history of leaks and explosions from storage wells, pipelines and other facilities. Underground CO2 plumes can stretch for miles beneath homes, schools, and oil and gas fields, endangering communities and workers.
There’s a lot of industry-driven misinformation and hype about CCS. But despite proponents labeling it “CO2 removal” or “negative emission” technology, there’s no denying it: Capturing a portion of the emissions from a smokestack is a far cry from removing carbon from the atmosphere. While some claim that CCS is needed to meet the 1.5-degree-Celsius warming limit set by the Paris Agreement, that’s simply not true. The reality is that public subsidies for CCS give the fossil fuel industry financial lifeline — while dooming everyone else to climate disaster.
CCS rightly faces widespread opposition from frontline communities, scientists, and environmental justice and climate groups. Vocal opponents include the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, more than 500 organizations, and the 1,500-group Climate Action Network.
Risks to Frontline Communities and the Environment
CCS not only entrenches the fossil fuel and biomass/biofuels industries, along with their existing health and safety harms to frontline communities, but also creates new pollution and safety hazards. The Black, Brown and Indigenous communities already suffering disproportionate and deadly dangers from the industries are targeted for CCS development, particularly along the U.S. Gulf Coast and in Louisiana’s petrochemical corridor known as “Cancer Alley,” as well as in the northern plains and California’s Central Valley.
Transporting and storing CO2 involves a massive network of perilous pipelines connected to underground injection sites, which have been known to leak and rupture. Compressed CO2 is highly hazardous upon release, forming a cold, dense cloud that sinks to the ground and can sicken and asphyxiate humans and animals.
In February 2020, 300 people were evacuated and 45 people hospitalized when a CO2 pipeline ruptured in rural Yazoo County, Mississippi. Since CO2 is odorless and colorless, community members were unaware of the harmful leak until it was too late. Dense clouds of CO2 prevented vehicles from operating, making it hard for people to evacuate and blocking emergency vehicles.
Underground CO2 storage poses even more risks of leakage, contaminating drinking water and triggering earthquakes.
And because toxic chemicals like lye and ammonia are often used to “capture” carbon, megatons of these dangerous chemicals must be produced, transported, handled and eventually dumped to operate CSS at scale. All of this creates massive hazardous chemical risks for workers and nearby communities.
CCS Projects Fail to Meet Climate ‘Solution’ Promises
CCS projects have systematically overpromised and underdelivered on carbon capture — unlike renewable solar and wind, which have delivered on emissions reduction promises while costs continue to plummet.
The only U.S. fossil-fueled power plant to operate with CCS equipment — NRG’s Petra Nova CCS project in Texas — vastly underperformed and was shut down indefinitely in 2020. Although Petra Nova promised a 90% carbon capture rate, a Stanford study found that the CCS equipment captured the equivalent of only 10-11% of the emissions produced by the facility after factoring in the emissions from the gas turbine used to run the CCS equipment and the upstream emissions. The study concluded that CCS “reduces only a small fraction of carbon emissions, and it usually increases air pollution.”
Most recently Chevron’s Gorgon plant in Australia, self-described as the “world’s biggest CCS project,” failed to meet its five-year CO2-capture target of 80%, instead capturing only 30% of its CO2 emissions despite billions of dollars of investment and tens of millions in subsidies.
Generally CCS projects rely heavily on public subsidies like tax breaks and credits, effectively making “CO2 the commodity.”
BECCS: Another False Solution
In one type of CSS, called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS, bioenergy facilities incinerate trees and crop biomass — which provide natural carbon storage — to make electricity or fuels, releasing CO2 and toxic air pollutants. BECCS comes with all the climate, health and safety dangers of CCUS. And it adds threats to biodiversity, food security, water security and human rights from heavy land use, forest cutting, and ecosystem destruction needed to feed its facilities.
The Center’s campaign is bringing our legal, scientific and organizing expertise to work at the federal level and in California to oppose the buildout of CCS — including BECCS — projects and CO2 pipelines. We work with national and local partners to educate policymakers and decisionmakers about the harms of CCS, fight projects that will perpetuate environmental injustice, and use media work to expose CCS as an industry distraction.
CCS is not a viable or just climate solution. We must invest in an equitable transition to clean, renewable solar and wind energy that upholds environmental justice and ends fossil fuels, leaving no worker or community behind. It’s past time to focus on the real solutions to the climate crisis and reverse the deadly injustices wrought by the fossil fuel industry.