CCS works technologically. Its problem is an economic one.

By Hugh HelfertyMargriet Kuijper, and Myles Allen

The International Panel on Climate Change says that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a key technology to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050. But CCS remains a point of contention, as many doubt its capabilities. Indeed, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) recently released a report promising the technology’s failure. But such reports are oversimplifying the past problems with CCS projects. The question ‘Does CCS work?’ must be split in two: ‘Does CCS work technically?’, and ‘Is it economic?’

The answer to the first question is, quite simply, yes. Industrial-scale CCS plants have been operating for 50 years. As of 2022, 29 CCS plants were operating with a capacity exceeding 35 million tons per year, and 131 more facilities are in development globally. Over time, there will be further advances in technology and operational efficiency. The US government, in fact, shares this belief: the US Dept. of Energy announced $30 billion in research and development funding towards carbon removal technology. Suggesting that CCS ‘doesn’t work,’ when referring to the technology’s literal ability to capture and store carbon, is false.

So the real question up for debate, and the reason reports like the one by the IEEFA call CCS a failure is, ‘Is CCS economic?’ Currently, CCS projects fail because they accrue costs that are not necessary to the success of the businesses funding them and are therefore shut down. Investing in the technology and discovering ways to make it even more scalable and cost-effective are simply not essential to good business.

What would make businesses invest in CCS at the scale necessary to achieve Net Zero? If we don’t leave it to businesses’ good will and dedication to protecting the habitability of our planet, then the answer lies in government policy. In the U.S., the Inflation Reduction Act is providing generous tax credits to encourage CCS investment. This approach will help CCS grow, but it places the cost on the backs of taxpayers, not the fossil fuel producers and users who are directly responsible for much of the CO2 that needs to be captured and stored.

Tax credits offer an incentive, or “carrot,” for CCS investments. But regulation would create a mandate, or “stick,” to focus on addressing climate change. Specifically, while fossil fuels remain a difficult-to-replace portion of our energy supply, governments could require fossil fuel producers to permanently store carbon, eventually in amounts equivalent to what they produce.

If we think of carbon dioxide emissions as another form of waste dumping, then this concept is not far-out at all, but rather falls within the familiar category of extended producer responsibility. Governments limit what producers can dump without paying for responsible waste disposal; why not extend this kind of limit to the fossil fuel industry?

Confronted with such a requirement, producers would either have to stop producing fossil fuels or take responsibility for the emissions that result. This would result in some producers accelerating their transition to alternative energy sources, while others drive innovation in the scalability and cost-effectiveness of CCS. Fossil fuels would continue to be available for hard to abate applications like jet fuel for airplanes, but this fuel would not be produced unabated.

So, CCS can be made economic. But perhaps the real problem is a third question: ‘Do we want CCS to succeed?’ Some object to CCS because some applications can help the fossil fuel industry. For example, the captured CO2 is sometimes used for Enhanced Oil Recovery, which can increase production from a given field. This contributes to CCS ‘s reputation as a lifeline for the oil industry. After the economic devastation caused by the fossil fuel industry, it is understandable why many say, ‘Enough, just shut it down’.

Unfortunately, society is not at a point where ‘just shutting it down’ is realistic. 82% of global energy comes from burning fossil fuels, and this fraction is only expected to drop to 74% by 2050 (although requiring fossil fuel producers to capture emissions would make fossil energy more expensive, thus further chipping away at this number). Climate action is needed immediately, and phasing out fossil fuels won’t happen quickly enough to be a successful defense against climate disaster.

Yes, much can––and must––be done to reduce fossil fuel use. But let’s not bet on curing our addiction to fossil fuels overnight. Let’s put in place CCS capabilities––paid for by the producers whose product puts the carbon in the atmosphere––so that we don’t continue to burn fossil fuels unabated while we work diligently to complete the energy transition.

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