Throwing the Carbon Capture Baby out with the Coal Bath Water

The environmental advocacy group Greenpeace recently released a report lambasting carbon capture and storage (or "CCS") as "a false climate solution" that "[i]n no uncertain terms...hurts the climate." The Greenpeace analysis, however, made a number of assumptions that fit the conventional wisdom surrounding CCS, but when analyzed with greater scrutiny turn out to be deceptively misleading. Misleading Assumption 1: CCS requires that we prolong coal use. Can we have CCS without coal? From a technical point of view, of course. The California Energy Commission just held a workshop on natural gas power generation and CCS, a handful of companies and researchers are working on direct air capture systems that can pull carbon from ambient air, and researchers across the globe have begun thinking about carbon-negative bio-energy and CCS projects. It may be politically infeasible to start developing CCS on these non-coal resources, but a compromise could be to ensure that we phase out coal CCS in favor of non-coal CCS. Regardless, it's too early to say whether these non-coal (and even renewable!) CCS systems can play a large role in fighting climate change, because we simply have not done enough research and development to have good data on these systems. Throwing out renewable CCS today as the unrealistic dreams of "techno-optimists" is analogous to stopping the development of solar energy back in the 1970s because it was over 100 times more expensive than it is today.

(Update: presentations from CEC workshop on natural gas + CCS available here.)

Solar PV chart
Solar PV chart

Above: Data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Misleading Assumption 2: It is inevitable that CCS will lead to increased EOR. Can we do CCS without EOR? Yes. There are a number of demonstration plants across the world injecting CO2 underground that involve no EOR. If we don't want EOR, we simply need to regulate CCS so that it can be cost-effective without additional fuel production. Such a pathway will increase the cost of CCS, and there is a much more valid and nuanced debate than what the Greenpeace analysis provides on whether we should pursue EOR in combination with CCS that focuses on using EOR as a pathway to net-negative emissions. But if we wanted to assume that EOR was entirely undesirable, we could still have CCS -- it would just cost more than it would in conjunction with EOR.

Misleading Assumption 3: Underground storage of carbon is required for sequestration. Does carbon have to be stored underground? No. We can turn it into cement, plastics, or any number of other solid products. Will there be issues with storing large volumes of solid carbon above ground? Probably. But we can get around the geologic sequestration problem if we wanted to accomplish this goal.

So can CCS hurt the climate if done wrong? Certainly. But is Greenpeace justified in saying that "in no uncertain terms" CCS "hurts the environment?" Certainly not.

As a result, I remain unconvinced that we should throw out CCS as a climate solution today. Instead, environmental advocates should strive to make clear all of the potential pitfalls of CCS, and ensure that its development balances these environmental and social concerns with the economic considerations of the companies and regulators responsible for deploying these solutions. If you think coal is bad, fight coal. If you think EOR is bad, fight EOR. If you think geologic sequestration is bad, fight geologic sequestration. But we can make a world where coal, EOR, and geologic sequestration do not exist but where large-scale CCS still flourishes if we so choose. While this world might seem far from reality today, it might be the only world where we can prevent catastrophic climate change, as most renewable energy solutions (like wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) are not capable of generating the net-negative emissions we likely need to prevent climate change.

Carbon removal wedges
Carbon removal wedges

Above: adapted from the Climate Institute "Moving Below Zero" report 

So let's stop entangling CCS inappropriately with arguments against related energy systems, because we can decouple CCS from these system is we choose. If we keep conflating CCS with these other arguments, we risk throwing out the CCS baby with the coal bathwater.