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CCS - An error in the Inflation Reduction Act?

image credit: Josh Haner/The New York Times
Mark Silverstone's picture
Principal, JMP Services AS

30+ years in Oil & Gas Industry Field of Interest: Environmental issues in general; waste management issues in particular. 

  • Member since 2002
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  • Aug 26, 2022

There´s a lot to like in the Inflation Reduction Act.  It will spur the adoption of renewables and EVs, improve energy efficiency and encourage innovation.

However, it must be pointed out that support for CCS is a loser, at least as this article claims.  One of the authors is a professor of environmmental engineering at MIT, and he says of CCS:

"Every Dollar Spent on This Climate Technology Is a Waste"

"The technology called carbon capture and storage is aptly named. It is supposed to capture carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources and pump them deep underground. It was a big winner in the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress last week and signed into law by President Biden on Tuesday.

What the technology, known as C.C.S., also does is allow for the continued production of oil and natural gas at a time when the world should be ending its dependence on fossil fuels.

The Inflation Reduction Act does more to cut fossil fuel use and fight climate change than any previous legislation by expanding renewable energy, electric cars, heat pumps and more. But the law also contains a counterproductive waste of money, backed by the fossil fuel industry, to subsidize C.C.S."

My personal experience with very expensive but, ultimately, failed attempts by both the Norwegian government and oil companies suggests a similar conclusion. 

" the United States — the idea was that the technology could compete as a way to produce carbon-free electricity by capturing the carbon dioxide emissions emitted from power plants and burying them. But now it’s clear that we were wrong, and that every dollar invested in renewable energy — instead of C.C.S. power — will eliminate far more carbon emissions."

We´re talking about billions that may be a complete waste of money.

"Of the 12 commercial C.C.S. projects in operation in 2021, more than 90 percent were engaged in enhanced oil recovery, using carbon dioxide emitted from natural gas processing facilities or from fertilizer, hydrogen or ethanol plants, according to an industry report. That is why we consider these ventures oil or natural gas projects, or both, masquerading as climate change solutions."

"The Kemper Power Project in Mississippi spent $7.5 billion on a coal C.C.S. plant before giving up on C.C.S. in 2017 and shifting to a gas-powered plant without C.C.S. The plant was partially demolished in October 2021, less than six weeks before President Biden signed the infrastructure bill with its billions of taxpayer money for C.C.S.: good money thrown after bad. The FutureGen project in Illinois started as a low-emission coal-fired power plant in 2003 with federal funds, but ultimately failed as a result of rising costs.

The Texas Clean Energy and Hydrogen Energy California C.C.S. projects were allocated over a half- billion dollars collectively, then dissolved. The list goes on, with at least 15 projects burning billions of dollars of public money without sequestering any meaningful amount of carbon dioxide. Petra Nova, apparently the only recent commercial-scale power project to inject carbon dioxide underground in the United States (for enhanced oil recovery), shut down in 2020 despite hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits."

The only way CCS could contribute to decarbonization may be a straightforward tax on carbon emissions.  Ultimately, either the consumer or taxpayer will have to pay for each tonne of carbon released via combustion in gas generators, cars, etc.

That accounts for a good deal of the sky high gasoline prices in Europe, currently running at about $US 10/gallon. I doubt US  taxpayers will ever want any part of it.  It is yet to be seen if the Climate Bill will result in consumers switching in large numbers to EVs in the US.  But, support, for example, for CCS for cement factories´ CO2 emissions may yet be productive, though only in a relatively modest way.  The current price of carbon at about 90 Euros per tonne still attracts little sustained investment interest. One or two relatively small scale projects (compared to transportation related emissions) in Norway may yet be worthwhile (in the context of the CO2 price) for, for example, “waste to energy” projects that are so far fully sponsored by taxpayers.  One plan is to capture and store about 400,000 tonnes CO2 per year, about 1% of Norway´s total CO2 emissions.

The oil and gas industry hopes that the use of natural gas for power generation with CCS will extend the life of the industry.  But even with the current high price of carbon emissions, it is not likely to attract many new investors.  And, CCS to reduce the concentration of carbon emissions from gasoline and diesel powered cars by extracting CO2 from the atmosphere is just fantasy.

As this article suggests, the economic deck is stacked against CCS.  Short of a carbon tax, which is highly unlikely to happen, it is apparent that

"We need to stop subsidizing oil extraction and carbon dioxide production in the name of fighting climate change and stop burning billions in taxpayer money on white elephant projects. Clean power from carbon capture and sequestration died with the success of renewable energy; it’s time to bury this technology deep underground."

So, if the US gets a lot more serious about decarbonization, there might be a carbon tax in our future, not to fund CCS, but rather to fund accelerated adoption of renewables.

Still, we must not sacrifice the good, constructive aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act in order to avoid the bad ones.  I suppose that the CCS mirage was necessary to get Senator Manchin on board.  It may be regrettable. But, that´s democracy at work.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 26, 2022

All valid criticisms, but it also sounds like including something like the CCS support was necessary to get to 50 Senate votes so it was at least politically necessary to get all the other positive aspects of the IRA. 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Aug 26, 2022

I agree with Mark. It's like the added car catalytic converters to try and reduce the car pollution when you could just make a zero emission Electric car. Putting a fix on the problem we created instead of going back to remove the problem . Desalinating water is another example. We waste and pollute water. So to fix the water shortage we try to remove the salt but what do we do with the sale we remove. Let's just stop wasting water and polluting it!  

Mark Silverstone's picture
Thank Mark for the Post!
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