The expansion of fossil fuels threatens our climate, public health and economic prosperity. It necessitates an end to new fossil fuel infrastructure and production, along with a managed decline of the industry. To stay alive, the fossil fuel industry is pushing a number of policies that further investment in fossil fuels, under the guise of addressing the climate crisis. Chief amongst these false solutions are carbon capture, utilization and storage, bioenergy, hydrogen, and carbon offsets. Not to be outdone, the nuclear industry is also forwarding their industry as a silver bullet for the climate crisis. Investing resources in these false solutions, takes money away from real climate solutions by extending a lifeline to dirty energy. Instead we can and must facilitate a rapid transition off fossil fuels that lifts our communities and workers while protecting public health and our environment.
Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) proposes to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere or smokestacks and then lock this CO2 away in underground sinks or in various consumer and industrial products. Despite industry claims, CCS is a false climate solution as demonstrated in the scientific literature. CCS props up polluters and boosts fossil fuel demand at a time it would otherwise be falling, providing a windfall for fracking and coal corporations as CCS-equipped power plants burn more fuel to produce the same amount of electricity. The enormous costs of operating these plants means there is no way they can compete with renewables for power generation. Spending on them is also an ineffective cost tradeoff with spending on renewable electricity generation instead.
While the industry claims that CO2 could have many uses, the major driver of CO2 utilization is the oil industry, which uses the CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, a method of oil extraction that pumps CO2 into oil wells, pushing oil to the surface that would otherwise stay underground. This results in more carbon emissions than it stores. A ton of CO2 produces 2 to 3 barrels of oil when injected; when burned, that oil emits around 1.2 tons of CO2. Pipeline companies also benefit from a CCS building spree of pipelines to connect CO2 capture facilities with oil fields.
CCS requires huge amounts of electricity, increasing energy usage at gas plants by 13% and up to 35% at coal plants. In turn this increases harmful co-pollutants that reduce public health, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. CCS remains unproven and expensive. Relying on it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is dangerous and occurs at high public cost and trade-offs, especially when proven and much cheaper alternatives exist. Instead, we must invest where it makes sense, and transition out of fossil fuel extraction and use. Factory reduction in CCS and CCUS may make more sense in helping to decarbonize challenging sectors of our economy like cement manufacturing that produce significant CO2.
Oil and gas companies are teaming up with factory farms to sell us a greenwashed nightmare: manure as renewable energy. Manure-to-energy, or “biogas,” places manure from factory farms in digesters, creating an ideal environment to maximise the production of factory farm gas. Despite claims that these operations reduce greenhouse gas emissions, burning biogas actually releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants, including smog-forming nitrogen oxides, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, potentially offsetting other GHG reductions. It entrenches factory farms by creating a market for the huge volumes of manure they produce. Investing in the massive infrastructure needed to produce biogas wastes critical resources that should be used to shift us toward real renewable energy and reduce disproportionate impacts to frontline communities.
Offset schemes create a “pay to pollute,” regime, turning decades of environmental efforts on their head and undermining improvements in environmental health. These “offsets,” or credits allow industries to continue polluting in the neighborhoods they operate in by paying someone else, somewhere else, to theoretically reduce emissions, ignoring the rights of local people.
Carbon market offset schemes allow polluters to continue business as usual in exchange for purchasing carbon credits from projects that are supposed to reduce an equivalent amount of carbon. This does not work in practice. More than a decade of carbon trading has shown that carbon markets have been gamed to benefit polluters, failed to reduce emissions, and even led to increased emissions, particularly in low-wealth and environmental justice communities.
Hydrogen is emerging as an element may help transition to a clean renewable energy and transportation system. But the ways hydrogen is created and used are not equal. Fossil Fuel companies are using hydrogen to greenwash fossil fueled power plants, and support short- sighted, technological band-aid solutions like carbon capture, so we must exhibit caution when hydrogen is being proposed as a panacea to climate-woes and fossil fuel-reliance. Fossil gas is responsible for over 95 percent of U.S. hydrogen production. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), steam-methane reforming is the most commonly used method of hydrogen production. Steam methane reforming produces hydrogen by applying high- temperature steam to methane from natural gas. It can also use other fuel products to produce hydrogen, including ethanol, propane and gasoline. Steam reformation not only relies on fossil fuel-based feedstocks, but also on fossil fuels for heat and emit waste carbon dioxide.
Hydrogen can be sourced sustainably by using renewable energy to electrolyze water. For many of hydrogen’s currently proposed applications, direct electrification (e.g. to grid or batteries) is the most efficient use of renewable electricity and can achieve greater GHG reductions sooner than green hydrogen. Building out hydrogen infrastructure for non-essential sectors would be a grave mistake. Therefore green hydrogen should only be used in fuel production or other applications where no electrification alternative is available – some aviation and shipping, some industry, chemicals, agricultural.
A bailout of existing reactors that are unable to compete with the rising tide of renewables is neither cost-effective nor serviceable of public health and safety in a truly clean, distributed energy system. Instead support and planning are needed for the orderly phaseout of existing nuclear capacity while prioritizing aid for workers and communities and land remediation.
Ensure a Just Transition and Economic Prosperity – We must enact comprehensive economic plans to drive job growth, rebuild and diversify local economies to end dependence on the boom and bust cycle of fossil fuel extraction, invest in a new green economy that is designed, built and governed by communities and workers. This includes: building new energy, waste, transportation and housing infrastructure designed to serve climate resilience and human needs; retrofitting millions of buildings to conserve energy and other resources; and, actively restoring natural ecosystems to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells and coal mines and protect communities from climate change. Climate change is real – our solutions need to be real, too.
Jacobson’s study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Energy and Environmental Science, concludes that carbon capture technologies are inefficient at pulling out carbon, from a climate perspective, and often increase local air pollution from the power required to run them, which exacerbates public health issues. Replacing a coal plant with wind turbines, on the other hand, always decreases local air pollution and doesn’t come with the associated cost of running a carbon capture system, says Jacobson. “Not only does carbon capture hardly work at existing plants, but there’s no way it can actually improve to be better than replacing coal or gas with wind or solar directly,” Jacobson said in a Stanford press release. “The latter will always be better, no matter what, in terms of the social cost. You can’t just ignore health costs or climate costs.” Jacobson’s findings support an April analysis by Clean Technica, which found that “wind and solar are displacing roughly 35 times as much CO2 every year as the complete global history of CCS [carbon capture and storage].”
coming release an 8-episode podcast called Carbon Valley that I’ve been working on for TWO YEARS+. The project explores the controversial story of carbon capture through the soon-to-end Carbon XPRIZE. Carbonvalleypodcast.org
Input: we need to stop obsessing about exchange rates and focus on what is needed in each area, i.e., regenerative ag, O&G permit phase out and addressing abandoned and leaking wells, etc.
Offsets are a tool that has evolved out of neoliberalism. Their focus is on the creation of markets to find optimal ‘tradeoffs’ between different objectives. For neoliberalism, everything should be a market, and the way to solve existing market problems is another market.
The problem is that our multitude of problems cannot be solved separately. Decarbonization requires substantial, rapid progress on many fronts simultaneously. This war metaphor of fronts is much more accurate for our present situation than markets. If we lose on one front, we lose the war.
Although much like war, resource allocation between different goals must be made, it is not possible to simply ignore different fronts. We need decarbonization efforts in agriculture, transportation, energy, housing, and industry. While it is fine to emphasize resource flows to some areas, these tradeoffs are secondary to the primary goal of making sure that there is progress on every sector.
So rather than indulging the fantasy that a ‘market mechanism’ can solve these problems, the resource tradeoff problem can and must be solved by democratic deliberation. But we simply cannot pretend that entire sectors can be ignored by more rapid progress in another sector. In the emergency we are in, it is necessary for each sector to move as quickly as possible and not limit our imagination to some bizzare antecedant notions of efficiency, tradeoffs, and markets. We have only one planet that cannot be exchanged.
We cannot solve the climate change problem using the same logic that we used to create it.