Don’t Fall for Big Oil’s Carbon Capture Deceptions

It’s that time of year again. The political and media circus of the United Nation’s big climate change meeting COP28 is about to begin, this time in in Dubai. And it’s bound to be quite a show.

In the inevitable crescendo of hype and greenwashing that’s coming our way, we’ll doubtless hear a lot about industrial carbon capture technologies that attempt to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The COP 28 host country, the United Arab Emirates, the world’s largest oil companies and even programs in the U.S. Department of Energy are working hard to push this stuff.

Don’t be fooled. It’s mostly a distraction from what we really need to do right now: phase out fossil fuels and deploy more effective climate solutions.

Industrial carbon capture technologies come in many flavors, but the most prominent are carbon capture and storage (CCS), which removes carbon dioxide from highly concentrated point sources like power plants, and direct air capture (DAC), which attempts to remove CO2 from open air, where concentrations are much lower.

At first blush, this sounds great. But, as I’ve written previously, counting on these technologies today is a bad idea. First, industrial carbon capture projects are far too small to matter. Even after decades of investment, research and development, today’s largest carbon capture projects only remove a few seconds’ worth of our yearly greenhouse gas emissions. And even the planned Regional Direct Air Capture Hubs the Department of Energy is supporting will only be able to capture one million metric tonnes of CO2 every year; last year, the world emitted 40.5 billion.

Second, they are far too expensive, costing thousands of dollars for every ton of CO2 removed. Other climate solutions, including improving energy efficiency, deploying renewable energy sources and addressing emissions in agriculture and industrial sectors, are far more cost-effective. Industrial carbon removal costs at least $1,000 per tonne removed; many other climate solutions either have costs lower than $10 per ton, and some have negative costs, saving money immediately.

Third, these industrial carbon removal techniques also consume excessive amounts of energy, which present enormous challenges to scalability. If we power carbon capture projects with CO2-spewing fossil fuels, the projects lose much of their proposed climate benefit. Moreover, powering them with renewable or nuclear energy sources would provide far less climate benefit than using that energy to directly displace fossil fuels.

In addition, CO2 captured by industrial carbon capture projects is often used to drive more oil and gas back out—for something known as enhanced oil recovery, which uses fluids like carbon dioxide to push oil and gas out of rock formations—helping fossil fuel companies continue working.

Industrial carbon capture also does nothing to reduce the health damage caused by fossil fuels. Most notably, sucking CO2 out of the air fails to relieve the tremendous air pollution effects of burning fossil fuels, which cause 8–9 million people to die prematurely each year.

More fundamentally, the biggest problem with industrial carbon capture schemes is that they are largely a ploy by Big Oil to delay action to phase out fossil fuels.

These projects give fossil fuel companies a greenwashing boost, cloaking pollution underneath fake environmental responsibility, helping them claim that they are taking serious climate action, all the while continuing to build out additional fossil fuel infrastructure and rake in trillions in profits. Carbon capture isn’t a serious climate solution. As you can imagine, the folks in Big Oil love it. Vicki Hollub, the CEO of Occidental Petroleum (which just received hundreds of millions from the Department of Energy for carbon capture projects), has said that “direct capture technology is going to be the technology that helps to preserve our industry over time. This gives our industry a license to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years that I think it’s going to be very much needed.” Mission accomplished. Carbon capture is being used to distract the world from rapidly phasing out fossil fuels, all on the taxpayer’s dime.

It’s troubling how many billions of tax dollars have already been wasted on carbon capture boondoggles and Big Oil giveaways. The U.S. Department of Energy has already poured tens of billions into poorly conceived and managed “clean coal” and CCS projects. They have almost entirely failed, earning the condemnation of the Government Accountability Office. And, unbelievably, the U.S. 45Q tax credit for carbon capture projects pays $60 a tonne for carbon used in enhanced oil recovery—which delays the retirement of the fossil fuel industry.

Carbon removal technology could have a role in the fight against climate change, but we would have to use it in a much more targeted way, Hard-to-control industrial sources like cement, steel and fertilizers might be good candidates for specialized CCS projects that can theoretically remove some of these concentrated emissions. This of course is only if researchers, investors and project managers can tackle the technology’s technical and financial limitations. Many scientists who are currently critical of carbon capture would support such use.

Bottom line, as we head into COP 28, we need to see fundamental shifts in how carbon capture technology is governed, funded and used in the world. We should forbid any connections between taxpayer-supported carbon capture projects and fossil fuel companies. In the U.S., we should immediately suspend 45Q tax breaks for enhanced oil recovery, which simply subsidize Big Oil’s bottom line and increase emissions at taxpayers’ expense. All Department of Energy funding for carbon capture projects that benefit fossil fuel interests should also be immediately redirected to more effective climate solutions. And the Government Accountability Office and Congress should continue to investigate how billions of taxpayer dollars ended up subsidizing Big Oil greenwashing—and systems that undermine effective climate action—in the first place. In the end, the global community must never again fall for schemes like this that cost taxpayers billions and remove minimal carbon at enormous cost, while handing Big Oil a PR bonanza.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.