In one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, Homer and Bart are forced to fend for themselves while Marge and Lisa are out of town. Rather than actually clean their home, they come up with a great idea to simply sweep all the dirt and garbage under their living room rug. The result is an exercise in maximum entropy, as eventually they can’t even stand in the room without falling over. The scene perfectly encapsulates the gambit of “carbon capture and sequestration,” which is being pitched and pushed as a tool to reduce emissions and address the global climate crisis.
The CCS process entails capturing carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel power plants and transporting it to an underground storage site, typically a geological formation. The selling point is that storage would prevent the release of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. But as our friends at Greenpeace International caution, “to actually deliver reductions, the emissions captured and injected must stay underground permanently”—and there is absolutely no guarantee the CO2 won’t leak.
In his landmark book Why Things Bite Back: Technology & the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, author Edward Tenner provides a prescient analysis of the Homer and Bart solution to pollution—one that also serves as a stark warning against CCS. “Technology demands more, not less, human work to function,” writes Tenner. “And it introduces more subtle and insidious problems to replace acute ones. Nor are the acute ones ever completely eliminated. … [I]n controlling the catastrophic problems we are exposing ourselves to even more elusive chronic ones that are even harder to address.” He goes on to describe what he refers to as “revenge effects,” in which a technology produces a result that is the opposite of what was intended. For example, “when a safety system encourages enough additional risk-taking that it helps cause accidents, that is a revenge effect.” We have already witnessed revenge effects associated with CCS, which in some cases could be characterized more as a reckoning.
Take the In Salah project in Algeria, one of the most notable large-scale CCS sites, where CO2 injection stopped indefinitely in 2011. It turns out that high-pressure carbon dioxide had likely caused new fractures in the surrounding sandstone, clearing the way for the CO2 to move up into part of the overlying, denser “caprock” serving as a seal. Then there’s the Sleipner gas field in the Norwegian North Sea, where Statoil has been injecting carbon dioxide into undersea reservoirs since 1996; scientists examined the seabed and discovered large fractures, creating many potential CO2 escape routes. And Denbury Resources, a leader in using captured carbon dioxide to stimulate oil production—a process known as “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR)—has “experienced several well blowouts in Mississippi,” Greenpeace notes, “which released large amounts of CO2 back into the atmosphere. In one incident, the large amount of carbon dioxide released suffocated deer and other animals.”
The only thing worse than the holes CCS proponents want to create to store their pollution are the myriad financial holes they’ve already created globally. Consider the Kemper County Power Plant, a proposed CCS facility in Mississippi. Located in a predominantly low-wealth African American community (because we know plants like these aren’t going to end up in Chappaqua, NY), the project promised to be a pollution-solving job booster and a lifeline to the coal industry. Instead, it is over two years behind schedule and upwards of $4 billion over its original budget (of $2.4 billion). Meanwhile, plant owner Southern Company is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, as ratepayers sue the corporation for alleged fraud.
With Friends Like These, It Pays to Pollute
Perhaps more troubling than CCS technology itself are the people presenting it as an effective climate solution. In July, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), rightly lauded as one of the few earnest climate champions in Congress, introduced the Carbon Capture and Utilization Act (S.3179). The bill would expand existing tax credits not only for using CCS at power plants and in industry, but also for EOR to increase fossil fuel production.
Describing the benefits of his bill, Sen. Whitehouse declared that “preventing the worst of climate change will mean deploying a broad range of technologies to reduce carbon emissions.” Unfortunately, this sentiment demonstrates an abecedarian understanding of how climate disruption works. Whitehouse’s bill would not help to prevent the “worst of climate change”—it would not even reduce emissions, period. Instead, it would encourage the usual suspects to continue polluting our climate by promoting an unproven technology that entails sweeping pollution under the rug, or, more specifically, under the ground.
Looking closer at Whitehouse’s proposal reveals an even more pernicious reality: by subsidizing EOR, the bill will actually benefit polluters who extract more fossil fuels at a time, when scientists are telling us we must keep 80 percent of remaining deposits untouched to avert the worst case scenario of climate catastrophe. EOR is an acknowledged part of Big Oil’s growth strategy, and although it is often touted as a climate solution, the mathematical case for pumping carbon dioxide underground in order to pump up more oil leaves a lot to be desired.
The Whitehouse bill isn’t the only new CCS giveaway. Its companion in the House, HR 4622, was introduced by Representative Mike Conway (R-TX). While Conway’s bill would provide $30/ton for either storing carbon dioxide underground or using it for EOR, Whitehouse’s rewards Big Polluters $50/ton for permanent geologic carbon storage and $35/ton for EOR. (Smaller tax credits already exist, but they are expiring soon. These bills would not only boost the fiscal benefit of capturing and storing CO2 or using it to extract more fossil fuels, but would also make the credits permanent.)
It makes sense that Conway would push a bill for Big Oil, as he’s received nearly $1.3 million in crude cash from the industry, but Whitehouse’s case is perplexing. He’s even enlisted centrist, fossil-friendly Democrats Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Jon Tester (D-MT) to co-write and co-sponsor his bill, respectively. Other co-sponsors include Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine (D-VA), who has a thing for offshore drilling and natural gas, and Cory Booker (D-NJ), who voted to lift the decades-old crude oil export ban last winter, selling out the climate for renewable energy tax credit scraps that will expire in less than five years. Completing the roster is Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who never misses a chance to throw free money to his friends in the coal industry.
Unfortunately, the rabbit hole goes even deeper than the geological formations where CCS pushers want to store pollution. Lining up to pat Whitehouse and his counterfeit climate savior (CCS) cronies on the back were a host of green groups, including the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), the Clean Air Task Force, and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
My mother used to always tell me, “if you can’t hold your friends accountable, you have no business trying to hold your adversaries accountable.” In that spirit, I must ask Senator Whitehouse, his co-sponsors, and the NRDC how they can justify pushing this legislation, which would reward an industry that already enjoys over $20 billion in tax breaks and other subsidies.
Many of those who support Whitehouse’s bill laud the soon-to-be-ratified Paris climate deal as an important step towards ambitious action. As weak as the agreement is, it usefully asserts that in order to avert global climate catastrophe, we must limit the planet’s temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, if not 1.5°C. As Senator Whitehouse, the NRDC, and too many others fail to either understand or to translate into action, that means keeping fossil fuels in the ground—not extracting them, burning them, and injecting their byproducts underground.
Kill the Bill(s): Volume 3
It’s unclear if either the House or Senate bill will make it out of committee, but with bipartisan support for both, it’s very possible that a new, potentially permanent, CCS subsidy could make it to the President’s desk for signature—probably as part of a bigger spending package before the end of the year. The likeliest scenario is a replay of the fight over the crude oil export ban, which was lifted last year, ironically, during the COP21 climate summit in Paris. We witnessed a giveaway to a polluting industry attached to a giant tax and spending bill, with Big Oil getting exactly what it wanted in exchange for a few concessions.
Now, companies like Arch Coal and Occidental Petroleum are actively lobbying on the Whitehouse bill, and the New York Timesrecently reported that ExxonMobil is investing in CCS technology. It’s no mystery why polluters like Exxon—in the wake of game-changing investigations into the oil giant’s climate deception—would want to go all in on CCS. Beyond propping up their business model, it’s the ultimate greenwashing scheme, allowing them to portray themselves as responsible environmental stewards.
I myself have a very simple mantra: If Exxon is involved with something, it can’t be good for our planet.
In order to stop these ludicrous subsidies, we’re going to have to get our collective Uma Thurman on and Kill the Bills. It will require a big mobilization, organized by frontline groups (along with solid partners such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth) who are willing to call out adversaries and friends alike, and it will require educating the public on the poison pill that is CCS.
This is a fight that is worth having, because if we’re not going to allow corporations like Exxon get away with having deceived us on climate for decades, we certainly should not allow them to continue polluting and benefiting from it financially—which is exactly what HR 4622 and S.3179 would do.
Top photograph by Theo Heimann/AFP/Getty Images. Bottom photographs by William Widmer/Politico and Greenpeace.