Carbon capture: key decarbonization tool or ‘false solution?’

Polly Glover found out her son had asthma when he was nine months old. Now 26, she carries an inhaler in her pocket whenever she’s out and about in Prairieville, Louisiana, part of Ascension Parish.

“He probably needs to leave Ascension quite frankly,” says Glover, but he hasn’t because “this is his home and this is our family and this is our community.”

The parish is part of the 85-mile (137-kilometre) stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, officially called the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor, more commonly known as Cancer Alley. The region’s air quality is among the worst in the United States, and in several places along the corridor, cancer risks are much higher than levels considered acceptable by the US Environmental Protection Agency. .

That’s why he’s wary of anything that could worsen air quality or threaten wildlife, and his biggest fear now is that a $4.5 billion plant designed to capture climate-changing carbon and produce hydrogen fuel from clean burning actually causes more damage to the lake. Maurepas Basin.

The blue hydrogen power plant is scheduled to be built and operated by Air Products and Chemicals, a multinational petrochemical company. The company says the plant will capture airborne carbon emissions created during production and place them safely underground, a process called carbon capture and storage.

“Sometimes I think people think you’re bubbling this up at the bottom of the lake,” said Simon Moore, Air Products’ vice president of investor relations, corporate relations and sustainability. “You know, this is a mile below the surface of the Earth, where the geological formation of the rock has this pore space, which just absorbs the CO2.”

Still, Glover is worried. “I am not a scientist. I am a mom who cares,” he said. “We have to be better stewards of the environment, and while carbon emissions need to be reduced, injecting them into the watershed is not the answer.”

There are several other carbon capture and storage projects proposed or in the works across the US, including in Louisiana, Texas, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and California. The companies behind them claim they can successfully remove carbon from the air to reduce pollution, then safely transport and store the carbon underground, or do both.

In some cases, oil and gas companies are relying on this new technology to help build new profit centers, such as plants that produce hydrogen, or to extend the life of their fossil fuel facilities.

Carbon capture and storage projects are gaining momentum since Congress approved $3.5 billion for them last year. The CCS Global Institute, a think tank that seeks to advance these projects globally, called it “the largest single grab of money for CCS in the history of technology.”

In the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading scientists said carbon capture and storage technology must be part of the range of solutions to decarbonize and mitigate climate change. But they said solar and wind power and electricity storage are improving faster than carbon capture and storage.

Opponents of carbon capture and storage say the technology is unproven and has been less effective than alternatives like solar and wind in decarbonising the energy sector.

“Carbon capture is neither viable nor feasible,” said Basav Sen, director of climate justice policy at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, DC-based progressive think tank. fossil fuels continue to operate the way they do. does.”

A study conducted in late 2020 by researchers at the University of California, San Diego found that more than 80% of 39 projects that attempted to commercialize carbon capture and storage ended in failure. The study cited a lack of technological preparation as a main factor

But even if the technology were successfully implemented, several critics say the projects would pose public health threats to communities long affected by air and water pollution.

First, they said that any project that extends the life of an existing industrial facility presents additional environmental harm by extending the amount of time it pollutes a community, which the IPCC report confirms.

Second, they noted that since carbon capture would require more energy to run the equipment, it would result in more air pollution because the technology can only capture a fraction of the carbon emitted by a facility.

Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a pioneer of carbon capture and storage technology, disputed this in an interview with the Associated Press. He but he recognized that there is a risk in the transport and storage of carbon.

In 2020, a pipeline carrying compressed carbon dioxide ruptured in the Mississippi town of Satartia, causing more than 40 people to receive hospital treatment and more than 300 to evacuate. The incident is cited by experts, advocates, and residents living near proposed carbon capture and storage projects to illustrate the potential dangers of long-distance carbon transport.

Injecting carbon underground for storage could end up polluting aquifers, according to Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law.

More than 500 environmental organizations, including the legal center, signed an open letter published in the Washington Post in July 2021, calling carbon capture and storage a “false solution.”

In response, the Carbon Capture Coalition, which champions the technology, published its own letter in August with more than 100 signatories. They lobbied Congress to include investment in carbon capture and storage in any future legislation.

Matt Fry, state and regional policy manager for the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based climate and energy think tank, told the AP that the technology is essential to meeting mid-century climate goals.

“The potential for a completely decarbonized and electrified world is a reality,” Fry said. “But we are going to need a transition to get there. And it’s going to require carbon capture to address those emissions.”

At the point of capture, Herzog said, the technology poses a “very low” threat to public health. “There’s always the possibility of some mishaps,” he added, “but on the general scale of chemical plants, (the technology) is pretty benign.”

Still, residents near the proposed projects are concerned.

In California’s Central Valley agricultural region, Chevron, Microsoft and Schlumberger New Energy are collaborating to build a facility in the city of Mendota that will generate power by converting agricultural waste into carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas, then mixing it with oxygen to generate electricity with the promise of capturing 99% of the carbon from the process.

Chevron said it plans to inject the carbon “underground into nearby deep geological formations.”

That’s troubling for Nayamin Martinez, who lives in the valley and is director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “That worries us a lot,” she said. “What does that mean in terms of risk of contamination of drinking water?”

Chevron spokesman Creighton Welch said the process they plan to use is safe. “CO2 capture, injection and storage are not new technologies and have been done safely for decades,” Welch said.

Back in Louisiana, Glover and other residents also fear that carbon capture technology will affect the water. The carbon dioxide captured at the Air Products and Chemicals facility will be stored in places such as under Lake Maurepas, an important wetland.

Kim Coates, who lives on the northeast side of the lake, said it’s a buffer between the Gulf of Mexico and residents. But he said he has witnessed generations of destruction of that ecosystem through industrial development and, more recently, hurricanes and tropical storms.

Now Coates fears more of the same if the carbon is stored under the lake. “We have seen the destruction over time with no one expecting what would happen in the future,” he said.

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Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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