Avoid False Solutions! Stanford Study Says Renewable Power Eliminates Argument for Using CCS with Fossil Fuels

Stanford Study Says Renewable Power Eliminates Argument for Using Carbon Capture with Fossil Fuels, by Justin Mikulka, DeSmog Blog, Nov 21, 2019.

coal power plant


New research from Stanford University professor Mark Z. Jacobson questions the climate and health benefits of carbon capture technology against simply switching to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Carbon capture technology is premised on two possible approaches to reducing climate pollution: removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere anywhere in the world, an approach generally known as direct air capture, or removing it directly from the emissions source, such as the smoke stack of a fossil fuel power plant.

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].”

Carbon capture technologies are still in their early stages and are far from being ready to scale up globally while renewable power is already economical, with forecasts for further price drops and huge growth.

As Clean Technica’s Mike Barnard concluded, “CCS is a rounding error in global warming mitigation.”

Today, wind and solar, combined with battery storage, are cheaper than coal for power generation. The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a nonprofit that supports the transition away from fossil fuels, predicts that by 2035 even the glut of natural gas now flooding the world at record low prices won’t be able to compete with renewables for power generation.

Just this week the CEO of Australian power company Alinta said he expected to close one of its coal plants well ahead of schedule. His reasoning was simple. 

“Given my 25 years of industry experience, I’d certainly be backing renewables, pumped storage and battery over [high-efficiency, low-emissions coal-fired power] and carbon capture and storage,” Alinta CEO Jeff Dimmery told The Business Program in Australia. 

Oil and Gas Companies Love Carbon Capture … and Carbon Taxes

The oil and gas industry has been a vocal supporter of carbon capture. The part that these fossil fuel companies presumably find so attractive is that it involves burning hydrocarbons — the product they sell — but in a way that theoretically doesn’t contribute to the climate crisis.

ExxonMobil asks on its website, “What If We Could Stop Carbon Dioxide Emissions From Power Plants?” It then goes on to suggest that carbon capture could make this possible. However, Exxon fails to acknowledge a simple, economical, and achievable way to stop the carbon dioxide emissions from power plants: use renewable sources. We have the answer to Exxon’s question, but the company probably won’t like it. 

Carbon capture technology is also the basis of the mythical concept of “clean coal,” which purports that coal can be burned for power and all of the carbon from its combustion could be captured and stored somewhere for the long term, instead of being released into the warming atmosphere. While carbon capture and storage has been a failure on a commercial basis for coal plants (and still yields the toxic impacts of mining and burning coal), the global coal industry is still pushing this concept. 


Last year, Reuters surveyed 10 major power companies and found the vast majority have no plans to install carbon capture technology, despite the many tax incentives Congress has offered.  

“Carbon capture is definitely interesting, it just hasn’t made economic sense just yet,” Spencer Hall, a spokesman for utility Rocky Mountain Power, explained to Reuters.

At this point, carbon capture isn’t economically viable but remains a favorite option pushed by the fossil fuel industry. It’s not unlike another policy designed to reduce carbon emissions — a carbon tax.

California has one of the largest cap and trade programs in the world. Much like a carbon tax, cap and trade programs are designed to use market incentives to lower carbon emissions from sources within a certain area. A new report by ProPublica finds that California’s cap and trade system has failed to achieve its goals, and one of the main reasons is that oil industry lobbyists have worked hard to make the system favorable to their interests — while ignoring the climate consequences.

Any plan to reduce carbon emissions via financial incentives for the oil and gas industry are at risk of this same fatal flaw.

Enhanced Oil Recovery: Carbon Capture’s Dirty Secret

Using carbon capture technology with fossil fuel power plants in order to combat climate change has another major shortcoming: where the carbon goes once it’s pulled from smokestacks. Right now the vast majority of that carbon dioxide isn’t being stored in an underground vault; it’s going toward enhanced oil recovery.

In order to increase the production of older oil fields, the oil industry will sometimes pump large amounts of carbon dioxide into old wells, which helps squeeze more oil out of the ground.

Using carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels to extract oil and gas, which will then be burned and add more carbon to the atmosphere is not a climate solution. It is, however, another explanation of why the oil industry is such a fan of carbon capture — because it enhances oil recovery and oil profits.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-3&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1116053895875317760&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.desmogblog.com%2F2019%2F11%2F21%2Fjacobson-stanford-carbon-capture-fossil-fuels-renewables&siteScreenName=desmogblog&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=550px

Is Carbon Capture a Distraction?

Oil and gas companies, with help from the coal industry and the Trump administration, are still pushing carbon capture as a climate solution.

Media stories about the promise of carbon capture will continue to appear — like this recent story about the prospects for algae-based carbon capture and biofuels — and the oil industry will continue to promote the idea that carbon capture will allow for continued burning of fossil fuels without harming the climate or environment, which is technically impossible.

Technologies for direct air capture, such as turning ambient carbon dioxide into liquid synthetic fuels — which still only gets to carbon-neutral, not carbon-negative, emissions — are even more early stage than those for carbon capture at power plants, and their financial prospects are challenging, to say the least. But current efforts to clean up fossil fuels’ carbon emissions at the smokestack are blatantly uneconomical, even with existing beneficial tax incentives.

As the Post Carbon Institute’s Richard Heinberg wrote last year, getting to negative emissions using an array of carbon capture technologies without curtailing economic growth requires something of a “magic show.”

“I call these solutions ‘magic’ because they are unlikely to accomplish much in the real world except to distract our attention from the necessary work of cutting emissions,” wrote Heinberg.

Main image: Cheshire coal power plant, Ohio. Credit: Peggydavis66CC BY-SA 2.0


Seduced: Climate moderates worldwide are getting sold on big oil’s carbon capture fantasies

L. Michael Buchsbaum

05 Jan 2021by L. Michael Buchsbaum The last few months have seen a rivulet of announcements around proposed carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) plans. Long trumpeted by the fossil fuels industry and given a recent boost by the scientists at the EIA and IPCC, it has become a favored climate change solution by policymakers in the EU, Johnson’s UK and plays a key role in the new Biden Administration energy transition strategies. CCS is also a key component within various envisioned “clean” hydrogen and net-carbon neutral schemes. But many fear that depending on CCS will only anchor fossil energy polluters long into the future. The first of a three-part series, L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews some of the fundamentals and current status of carbon capture projects worldwide.

Scientific and Economic Approval

Though in an ideal world, fossil fuels would be phased out, climate moderates argue that instead of just quickly transitioning to a 100% green renewable system, we should additionally focus on cleaning up existing energy production systems. The current CCS concept evolved out of the “Clean Coal” argument which promised coal could be kept viable by safely trapping it’s carbon emissions underground.

Similarly, the new framing of CCS is that it will help “clean” hydrogen decarbonize the hardest 30% of the economy like the steel and cement sectors. Subsidies designed to expand it are already being sold to lawmakers worldwide as “climate money,” and will, in the end, inevitably divert resources away from decarbonizing the first 70% of the economy with wind and solar.

Industry claims CCS is necessary for meeting global net-zero carbon goals. Their case was given a huge assist in October 2019 by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) when they called for using the technology to achieve 13% of the world’s necessary emission reductions by 2050.

This endorsement runs parallel with recent modeling by the Paris-based International Energy Agency that also provides much of the political cover for depending on CCS to reduce industrial emissions.

Where CCS is today

As of November 2020, CCS is included in 15 of 19 submitted climate strategies from the European Union and the following individual countries: Canada, Czechia, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, Singapore, Slovakia, Ukraine, UK and the US. Other nations are quickly developing plans, partially as a well to get into the subsidy cue.

Though dozens of new projects are bulging construction pipelines only 26 commercial CCS facilities are globally in operation and only able to capture about 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year according to a report published on December 1 by the Global CCS Institute.

Getting to “net” zero emissions

Overall, the Global CCS Institute’s database shows some 60 facilities in various stages of development worldwide. However these and the handful now in operation are paltry compared to what the IEA, IPCC and other groups say will be needed in order to meet the eventual Paris climate targets. Getting anywhere near a fossil fuel economy saved by CCS would require the construction of an incredible 70 to 100 more facilities a year for the next 30 years.

These CO2 capture and storage facilities will be constructed to prevent emissions from across a wide variety of sectors: heavy industry, including cement, steel, chemicals and other core industrial processes; ethanol and fertilizer production and; refining and fossil gas processing. CCS will also be central to plastic production, “blue” hydrogen and gas and coal-fired electricity power generation.

The IEA estimates that the evolving global carbon capture industry will need to scale-up to over 2,000 facilities capturing 2.8 gigatons of CO2 per year to limit warming to 2°C. To meet the more ambitious 1.5°C scenario, the IPCC estimates that 10 gigatons of CO2 per year must be captured.

Power Suckers

Not surprisingly, CCS is really expensive, ranging between $40 and $232 a ton depending on the process, according to a European Union analysis.

Moreover, it requires even more energy to operate: more power is required to strip and capture the CO2 out of the emissions stream; more to ship and transport it; and more still to inject the CO2 pollution deep underground.

According to Tomas Baxter, Senior Lecturer of Chemical Engineering at the University of Aberdeen, “for a gas-fired power station, you typically have to burn 16% more gas to provide the capture power. Not only this, you end up with a 16% increase in emissions of other serious air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Concerns have also been expressed about the potential health effects of the amine solvent used in the carbon capture.”

Then comes the carbon built into additional processing, transport and storage for both the fossil gas coming in, and the pipeline costs of the CO2 itself. This is on top of the amounts of energy needed to frack or drill for that gas in the first place.

Another uncertainty exists around whether or not that CO2 might eventually escape once its supposedly “sequestered.” Though industry promises that won’t happen, “industry” in this case is oil and gas—what haven’t they spilled over the last century? With hundreds of vast new complex facilities rapidly coming online, we know “accidents” will happen.

How to make the money

Another central question surrounding CCS are the economics. What’s the case for burying carbon?

So far the way CCS works for investors is if developers receive massive subsidies or tax breaks to construct the plants and infrastructure. The fossil fuels industry and their partners are the ones largely supporting CCS—indeed ExxonMobil proudly boasts they are the world leader!

The sector looks to benefit from a future carbon sequestration market by being paid to accept and “dispose” of carbon pollution at less than current carbon tax rates, or being paid through direct tax credits or additional government support or a mixture of all the above. Developers and operators can also benefit from re-utilizing that captured carbon as well (CCUS).

The American Way

One way to understand CCS is to look at the two commonalities most shared by the majority of today’s operating commercial projects.

Most make money through one of many “EOR” techniques, essentially using incidentally or secondarily sourced carbon to re-pressurize declining oil and gas fields and squeeze out more crude.

And half of the facilities are located in the United States.

CCS enjoys something in the US shared very seldom these days: bi-partisan support. In 2020 the US Congress agreed to new CCS subsidies for developers in the form of expanded tax credits. The enlarged 45Q credit now give a $35 bonus for each metric ton of carbon dioxide captured and stored within an existing oil deposit (EOR) or $50 for storage within other geologic formations. Since subsidies expire at the end of 2023, it’s no surprise that 12 new projects were introduced over the past year.

Barely capable of supporting a Covid-ravaged, broke and starving public, Congress supporting subsidies for big oil is still the American way.


Oppose False Solutions to the Climate Crisis

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.

Nuclear energy

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.