With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August, many environmental advocates and others concerned about rapidly rising global temperatures breathed a collective sigh of relief. The US finally is taking historic action to address the climate crisis. The IRA is the largest-ever US investment in tackling climate change. Those who crafted the bill say its $370 billion price tag will allow the US to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 40 percent by 2030.
But among the welcomed parts of the bill—such as expanding renewable energy, supporting energy efficiency, and funding conservation stewardship—there lies a Trojan horse. Billions of dollars are now available to the fossil fuel industry for carbon capture and sequestration, disguised as a fundamental pillar of our nation’s carbon emission reduction plan. The net effect of this giveaway will be a prolonged reliance on fossil fuels and a diversion of much-needed funding away from the more effective and efficient paths of renewable energy.
In concept, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) seems like a brilliant idea: capture carbon dioxide from the air or carbon-emitting industries, pressurize it, and transport it via specialized pipelines to a predetermined location, then inject it underground where it is meant to stay for perpetuity. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels becomes less urgent if we can trap the carbon emissions and literally make them disappear forever. If only it were that simple. Each step in the process has its own technological, economic, and logistical challenges. And while CCS researchers continue to struggle with those challenges, the US government is ready to go all in on its implementation.
Carbon capture technology has been around since 1972. The first CCS project captured carbon dioxide at a natural gas processing facility in Texas to inject in a West Texas oil field for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Fifty years later, EOR remains the primary use of captured carbon dioxide. Indeed, 81 percent of all carbon captured to date has been injected into depleted oil fields for the sole purpose of getting more oil out—the antithesis of a climate solution. Of the fourteen functional CCS facilities in the US today, thirteen are used for EOR.
Despite billions of dollars in research and development, CCS facilities have a very poor record of performance and repeatedly fail to meet promised capture goals. A December, 2021 report by the US Government’s General Accountability Office showed that the Department of Energy’s investment of $684 million in eight coal CCS projects resulted in just one operational project: Petra Nova. That project was idled in 2020 due to economic inviability. The Energy and Policy Institute noted that “Despite claims that Petra Nova reduced emissions by 90 percent, the project actually only captured emissions from a 240-megawatt portion of the 654-megawatt coal unit, amounting to an emissions reduction of about 33% from that one coal unit. No emissions were captured at the other three coal units or the gas units at the W. A. Parish Generating Station.” Moving these operations to renewable energy would produce a larger reduction in carbon emissions than relying on a program of carbon capture.
The transport of CO2 to a suitable underground injection site also is fraught with problems. Geologists say that Illinois is a prime area for CO2 storage. Plans call for hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 to be transported from sites throughout the Midwest to locations in central Illinois, where it will be injected over a mile underground. To move CO2 efficiently, it is piped under high pressure as a supercritical liquid. Leaks in a pipeline can quickly turn into a disaster, as ruptures send large quantities of high-pressure CO2 into the surrounding area. CO2 is heavier than ambient air and spreads quickly, displacing oxygen and asphyxiating humans and livestock. In 2020, a rupture in a CO2 pipeline near the small town of Satartia, Mississippi caused residents as far away as a mile and a quarter to become dizzy and pass out. Over 200 people were evacuated and 45 hospitalized.
Farmers and landowners in rural areas generally are adamantly opposed to the CO2 pipelines, not just because of the safety hazard they pose, but because private companies are granted eminent domain to claim broad easements across valuable farmland. Construction can permanently damage the soil structure, disrupt tile systems, and result in long-term reductions in crop yields.
IRA to the Rescue
For decades, CCS has remained a technology with focused applicability, unproven at industrial scale for the power sector and too expensive to attract energy investors. That is, until recently. In 2008, Section 45Q of the US tax code created subsidies for CCS. Large corporations receive tax credits for each ton of CO2 they claim to sequester, including CO2 used for EOR. With the passage of the IRA, fossil fuel producers and their users and investors can now claim $85 per ton of CO2 sequestered geologically and $60 per ton if used for EOR. Consequently, oil and gas companies are becoming “carbon managers.”
Within the last year, four companies—Summit Carbon Solutions, Occidental Petroleum, Wolf/ADM, and Navigator CO2 Ventures—each have announced plans to construct CO2 pipelines in the upper Midwest.
Navigator Energy, the largest private crude-oil provider in the Anadarko oil basin in Texas and Oklahoma, formed Navigator CO2 Ventures LLC and Heartland Greenway LLC to construct a 1,300-mile pipeline to transport up to 15 million metric tons of CO2 from five states to sequester underground in central Illinois. Pursuant to Section 45Q, Navigator has the potential to make over $15 billion for itself and its investors over a twelve-year period.
Navigator is just one of many proposed pipelines. A 2021 Princeton University report projects the need for a national network of 60,000 miles of new pipelines by 2050, connecting much of the Midwest to Texas and the Gulf states. This would open up opportunities for both geological sequestration and EOR on a massive scale.
Eco-Justice Collaborative has helped form a new coalition of landowners, residents, and environmental organizations who oppose the construction of Navigator’s pipeline. With guidance from the coalition, over 120 landowners and several Illinois counties and townships legally intervened before the Illinois Commerce Commission to oppose the approval of the pipeline. Landowners are refusing to sign easement agreements and are preventing surveyors from entering their property. Through educational webinars, local informational meetings, and presentations, the coalition has offered elected officials the tools to develop ordinances regulating setbacks and adopting emergency action plans should the pipeline go ahead.
The International Panel on Climate Change has made it clear the quickest, most significant, and cheapest route to reducing greenhouse emissions is by scaling up renewable energy. A national policy relying on CCS as a potential climate solution is a diversion of vital funds from proven renewable solutions. We should think twice before diverting our climate-mitigating time, energy, and finances to an emerging technology which embraces economic incentivization to the oil and gas industry and ultimately could prove disastrous.
Lan and Pam Richart are co-directors of Eco-Justice Collaborative (EJC) in Champaign. Through coalition-building and grassroots organizing, EJC works to incorporate environmental, social, and economic justice as it addresses the climate crisis.