The Future of Carbon Capture

Carbon capture is a term used to describe a group of technologies that either remove carbon directly from the air or scrub it from waste gas as fossil fuels are burned.  In either case, the carbon “captured” is buried or used in the manufacture of other products.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change includes carbon capture as one of many methods that must be employed if the world is to limit temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The U.S. does not have a dedicated research program for carbon capture.  Funding has been piecemeal.  But in the $3.5 trillion infrastructure legislation under consideration in Congress, advocates see an opportunity to change that.  The first funding for carbon capture came in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.  Now several bills have been proposed to amend that Act to strengthen the research funding and tax credits for carbon capture projects.

The carbon capture method eventually supported by Congress is important to West Virginia.  Removal of carbon directly from the air remedies harmful carbon already released, while capture during the burning of fossil fuels does not reduce the carbon in the atmosphere, it merely prevents the release of additional CO₂.  Further, the “scrubbing” method continues our reliance on those fuels versus renewables.  West Virginia coal interests are lining up behind removal from fossil fuel gasses for obvious reasons.

But the truth is that neither method of carbon capture and storage is feasible now at the scale necessary to make even a tiny improvement in the climate change monster.  Currently, around 40 megatons of CO2 are captured and stored annually worldwide, equivalent to about 0.1 per cent of our emissions. Funding carbon capture projects is a bet on the future.

Many, although not all, environmentalists oppose carbon capture.  They worry that carbon sequestered underground will still find its way to the surface through leaks, pipeline spills and geologic activity.  They also rightly argue that carbon capture employed in the burning of fossil fuels does not wean us from these harmful fuels.  The entire mining, drilling and pipeline infrastructure would still be present and require capital investment that could otherwise be spent on renewables.

Perhaps more to the point, environmentalists argue that carbon capture generally does not work.  FutureGen Alliance, backed by the U.S. Department of Energy, attempted to demonstrate carbon capture at a coal-fired power plant in Illinois.  After spending $1.65 billion, DOE suspended the project in 2015.  More recently, Chevron conceded that it has fallen short of its carbon capture targets after spending $3 billion on a project in Australia.  Throughout this period, the cost of solar and wind projects has plummeted.

Undeterred, a bipartisan group of legislators recently sent a letter to House and Senate leadership outlining a legislative program for breathing some life into the carbon capture concept.  Many of these legislators hail from oil and coal-producing states, including David McKinley who represents West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District.

The letter proposes a “targeted suite of carbon management policies,” including the buildout of regional CO₂ transport and storage networks, enriching the tax credit available for carbon capture projects, and “robust funding” for commercial scale carbon capture pilot projects.  They urged Congressional leaders to pass several pending bills that would amend current law to achieve all these goals.

Notably these legislators also urge reforming the law to incentivize utilities to retrofit existing coal-fired units with carbon capture technology.  I am certainly no expert, but these bills seem to dress up carbon capture in virtuous language, while really aiming to bolster the coal and other fossil fuel industries.  Rep. McKinley has proposed one of these, called the “Net-Negative Carbon Dioxide Baseload Power Act.”  This bill would have the Secretary of Energy begin a retrofit program for existing coal-fired plants that use at least 70% coal.

Perhaps friendlier to the environment overall is the direct air capture method for removing carbon.  The technology for this has existed on a small scale for many years – it is what enables air inside a submarine to be reused.  One recent venture in Iceland will use a chemical called sorbent to capture carbon contained in the air circulating through.  Once it is fully operational, the project will capture 4000 metric tons of carbon each year.  The size of this experimental operation will soon be eclipsed by one in the Southwestern U.S.

The ultimate question is whether the cost of capturing a ton of carbon by direct air capture can be brought down to around $100.  This will be a difficult target to meet – the cost incurred by Climeworks, the company building the Iceland project, is expected to be around $500 per ton.  But if costs can ultimately be reduced to around $350 per ton, these experimental projects may reveal enough promise to attract the funding necessary to improve the technology and drive costs down.