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The future of the fossil fuel industry depends on an expensive Rube Goldberg technology called carbon capture and storage (CCS), intended to capture billions of tons of hazardous waste carbon dioxide (CO2) from smokestacks and bury it deep underground where optimistic experts say it will remain forever. Pessimistic experts say it won’t work.
The goal is to continue burning fossil fuels for the next 50 years but keep the resulting CO2 out of the atmosphere where it heats the planet, intensifying storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, crop failures, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels. CCS is the fossil-fuel industry’s last-gasp attempt to prevent the U.S. and the world from abandoning fossil energy in favor of cheaper, cleaner solar power.
If these two pipelines succeed, CCS in the U.S. will more than double in size overnight, very likely flashing a green light for more huge CCS projects—only made possible by Uncle Sam’s 45Q tax credit.
Back in 2005, a handful of industrialized nations (the so-called G8) agreed to develop CCS technology and since then the U.S. government has worked hard to make it happen but with little success so far.
Adding carbon-capture filters onto a smokestack is expensive and the CCS filters themselves use about 20 percent of a power plant’s energy output—thereby producing more pollution per unit of electricity, including smog-producing nitrogen, sulfur, and fine particles (PM2.5). This pollution falls disproportionately on communities of color or low income, so CCS is an environmental justice abuse. And every dollar spent on CCS is a dollar that cannot be spent on renewable energy.
Furthermore, there’s only a tiny market for the captured CO2 (for example, the fizz in soft drinks), so CCS can’t pay for itself. There is no market for billions of tons of hazardous waste CO2. Cue Uncle Sam. The federal government has spent more than $9 billion taxpayer dollars since 2010 to help coal and oil companies get CCS off the ground.
In 2008, trying to lure private companies into the CCS business, Congress modified section 45Q of the federal tax code, offering a tax credit of $10 per ton to anyone burying at least 500,000 tons of CO2 in the ground. A federal tax credit is money a taxpayer can deduct directly from federal taxes owed, reducing their tax liability. In 2018, Congress sweetened the 45Q pie, offering tax credits up to $50 for every ton of CO2 buried.
Today the U.S. has 12 small CCS projects operating; together they bury a little over 20 metric tonnes of CO2 each year, which is only 0.4 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions in 2019 (5.3 billion metric tonnes). Worse, 11 of those 12 CCS projects are pumping their CO2 into depleted oil fields to extract more oil. This is called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). A detailed engineering analysis of EOR in 2009 concluded that, for every ton of CO2 pumped into an EOR project, between 3.7 and 4.7 ton of CO2 are released into the atmosphere, mostly from burning the extracted oil. Therefore, CCS in the U.S. so far has made global heating worse, not better.
Hazardous waste CO2 pipelines
To burnish the green credentials of CCS, two major projects are getting underway now in the Midwest, to capture CO2 from dozens of refineries that turn corn into ethanol alcohol, which gets mixed into gasoline.
The climate credentials of the corn-ethanol industry are shaky. In 2008, a Princeton University research group calculated that a gallon of corn-ethanol releases more CO2 than a gallon of gasoline because forests and grasslands are plowed to plant corn, releasing CO2 from soil. Since then, other studies have tried to refute those Princeton results by claiming land-use changes from corn-ethanol must be ignored because they are too hard to measure. It’s a crucial issue that remains contested.
Now a tremendous fight is brewing in the Midwest as two major CO2 pipeline projects seek permission to install over 3000 miles of pipe to carry a total of 27 million tons of liquid hazardous waste CO2 per year across privately-owned farmland, with many land owners saying “No.” There’s already talk of court battles to stop both projects.
If these two pipelines succeed, CCS in the U.S. will more than double in size overnight, very likely flashing a green light for more huge CCS projects—only made possible by Uncle Sam’s 45Q tax credit. At $50 per ton, 27 million tons of buried CO2 would bring the two pipelines a total of $1.35 billion of free money each year. Furthermore, at the end of each project, the two companies would get to walk away, with Uncle Sam accepting liability for any future harm to underground water supplies, earthquakes, or CO2 leakage.
To transport CO2 via pipeline, it must be pressurized to more than 1000 pounds per square inch, turning the gas into a liquid. If the pipe develops a leak, thousands of tons of CO2 can escape within seconds.
CO2 is an invisible, odorless gas, heavier than air. When released in bulk, it remains close to the ground, forming an invisible puddle that excludes oxygen, asphyxiating everything that remains within the puddle. In 2010, a CO2 pipeline ruptured in Satartia, Mississippi, sending 49 people to the hospital, many with lasting health effects.
The 2000-mile-long “Midwest Carbon Express” pipeline proposed by Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions, will traverse Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, ending in North Dakota where 12 million tons of liquid CO2 will either be buried deep in the ground each year or will be used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR); the company is being coy about its EOR plans. If used for EOR, Summit’s CO2 would release 3.7 to 4.7 tons of CO2 for every ton buried, likely negating the climate benefits claimed by ethanol producers.
The second pipeline—the 1300-mile Heartland Greenway System—proposed by Navigator CO2, a Texas company, aims to carry 15 million tons of hazardous waste CO2 each year across Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota for deep burial or enhanced oil recovery somewhere in southern Illinois.
The future of U.S. CCS—and therefore of the fossil fuel enterprise itself—likely hinges on the outcome of these two huge pipeline fights.