EPA’s Dangerous Carbon Capture Gamble 

Bridger Power Plant, Wyoming. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

As expected, the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules to reduce emissions from power plants rely on so-called ‘carbon capture.’ In theory, this would remove some climate pollution before it enters the atmosphere. There is still one major problem with the technology: It still does not work as advertised.

Obviously, carbon capture sounds appealing: Who wouldn’t want to reduce pollution? Administration officials and industry boosters say the technology – often dubbed ‘novel’ or ‘emerging’– is ready to live up to its name. In this view, it offers the best of both worlds: Much of the existing gas infrastructure can remain in place, minus the planet heating emissions.

There is no reason to believe that carbon capture can realize this vision – and plenty of evidence to show that it does not. Despite billions of dollars of support for over a decade, there are still no power plants equipped with carbon capture in the United States. A series of publicly-funded projects produced expensive failures, and we have seen little progress since then. Betting our climate future on this technology is beyond foolish – especially when the White House is not taking actions to limit fossil fuel production in the first place.

It might be unfair, though, to call the technology a total failure. There are a handful of industrial facilities that manage to capture and re-use carbon dioxide; however, the vast majority of the material is used in a process called ‘enhanced oil recovery,’ to push more oil out of older wells. Once you factor in the additional emissions created by burning that oil, carbon capture may actually be responsible for an increase in climate pollution.

In a theoretical world where carbon capture did actually work as advertised, other problems would remain. The technology needs a lot of energy – meaning burning more fossil fuels in order to deliver power to the capture equipment. Carbon capture would do little about other forms of air pollution created by power plants, and would have no impact on the air and water pollution created at drilling sites. And if developers seek to store carbon underground, they will need to build thousands of miles of new carbon pipelines, which present a different set of safety problems.

Despite these shortcomings, carbon capture and related technologies backed by the fossil fuel industry remain alluring to lawmakers. The 2021 infrastructure law commits billions to carbon capture research and deployment, and the Inflation Reduction Act substantially increases a tax credit program called 45Q, which companies claim for the carbon they say they are capturing.

That tax credit program deserves scrutiny; unfortunately, it is designed to avoid it. The overwhelming majority of the money that was doled out – about $1 billion between 2010 and 2019 – went to just ten companies. However, the public is not permitted to know which companies have claimed those credits, how much carbon pollution they have successfully sequestered, or whether these figures are even verified. A review revealed that most of the credits were awarded to companies that did not comply with the EPA’s reporting and verification requirements. To put it plainly, we are not certain how much of the carbon we are paying to sequester has actually been sequestered at all.

The shortcomings of carbon capture schemes should give lawmakers pause. Unfortunately, Congress and the Biden administration are eager to expand this corporate tax giveaway. If reducing climate pollution is really the Biden administration’s goal, it would make more sense to focus on reducing the supply of fossil fuels at the source. That means using existing executive authority to reject new fossil fuel pipelines, power plants and gas export terminals. This is how the White House could show real climate leadership.