Earth Matters: Carbon capture myth

The Island Now

By Patti Wood

Even the most ardent climate change deniers have come around and now recognize that climate change is upon us and human activity is the primary cause of this monumental global crisis.

Governments around the world are struggling with this reality and trying to set ever more stringent CO2 emission goals, investing in renewable energy technologies, responding to the climate crises at hand and preparing for the inevitable increases in dangerous heat waves, flooding, fires and the ravages of violent storms.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry, which is generally recognized as being responsible for much of this problem, is trying to figure out how to keep its businesses alive and profitable. And they have come up with yet another Earth-saving effort: “Carbon Capture” or “Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)” or “Carbon Capture Storage and Utilization (CCSU).”

Extracting and burning fossil fuels releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as does wood burning. Deforestation, the massive destruction of trees and forests, means that these natural ecosystems can no longer perform their critical job of removing CO2 from the air. Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.

CO2 is known as a “greenhouse gas” because it absorbs and radiates heat. Unlike nitrogen or oxygen, which make up most of our atmosphere, greenhouse gases absorb heat and then release it gradually over time, like an oven that stays hot for a while even after you turn it off. It’s Earth’s ingenious natural heating system, developed over billions of years.

This natural greenhouse system is what allows Earth’s average annual temperature to be close to 60°F instead of well below freezing. But drastic increases in greenhouse gases over a relatively short period of time have changed the balance of this natural system, raising the Earth’s average temperature and spawning dramatic changes in weather patterns.

So how will “Carbon Capture” help solve this problem? Well, consider if you will some of the former campaigns of the fossil fuel industry. First there was “Clean Coal.” The fact is there is no way to make extracting and burning coal clean. “Clean Coal” was more a public relations marketing campaign than a serious effort to address climate change.

Next came “Clean Natural Gas,” the “Bridge Fuel.” This campaign tried to convince the public that natural gas was a clean fossil fuel. The extraction of natural gas from ancient seabeds not only releases methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, but the process itself known as “fracking” uses chemicals that contaminate our air and water and brings up radioactive materials that are often found in the same geological formations as the gas. This successful effort to get homeowners to switch from “dirty” oil heat to “clean” natural gas heat bought the industry another 30 years of life and they’re still at it!

So now the industry has come up with its new campaign. “Carbon Capture” utilizes post-combustion, pre-combustion and oxyfuel technologies for power stations and other industries producing prodigious amounts of CO2. Once the CO2 is captured through energy-intensive processes, it is compressed into a liquid state and transported by pipelines, tanker trucks or ships and then pumped underground into geologically suitable areas.

Liquid CO2 can be used to produce commercially marketable products like its use as a feedstock for plastic production. This is commonly known as carbon capture storage and utilization (CCSU). The industry particularly likes its utilization for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), where captured CO2 is injected into depleted oil and gas reservoirs to increase their extraction. What? Enhancing oil and gas extraction?

Fact check: The cost of carbon capture is very high, especially for power generating plants and cement production. Despite billions of dollars being spent worldwide, carbon capture projects have failed to perform as promised.

Fact check: Carbon capture technology allows all the other emissions, such as soot, benzene, mercury and nitrogen oxides, to continue contaminating air quality.

Fact check: Carbon capture technology uses vast amounts of energy, requiring power plants to burn more fossil fuels.

Energy expert Greg Bourne says,” Carbon capture and storage is not a climate solution, but an expensive attempt to prolong the role of fossil fuels in the energy system. Right now, governments need to be focused on building a resilient, renewable economy, not throwing taxpayer dollars at fossil fuel producers and failed technology.”

Nevertheless, the industry is busy in Washington, making sure that legislators include hundreds of millions of dollars in the new infrastructure package to pay for carbon capture and the new pipelines needed, which by the way have to be specially lined so as not to leak or corrode, since a leak of carbon dioxide can be extremely toxic. But since the industry is one of the largest sources of funding for congressional campaigns, it’s likely to get its way.

Albert Einstein had it right. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Any so-called “solution” for climate change which permits the continued burning of fossil fuels is no solution at all. But with enough marketing and promotion, the industry hopes that the public may eventually be convinced that carbon capture is a great idea that will save the planet: Mother Nature isn’t buying it.

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