Chris Varrone | April 15, 2021
In the new Biden Administration, the United States will return to a leadership position globally in climate change and cleantech innovation. There will be major expansions in green energy and green jobs, revitalized efforts to boost efficiency and electrification, and a robust federal plan to put the country on a path toward zeroing out its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But even the most ambitious climate campaign will not save us from the ravages of climate change, unless it includes one crucial technology: carbon capture and storage, or CCS.
Only CCS can turn back the clock on climate change by absorbing the greenhouse gases we have already generated: While the technology was once solely used to capture direct emissions from polluters like ethanol and cement producers, recent pilot projects have demonstrated that it can now remove heat-trapping emissions from the ambient air, storing them underground or funneling them into green products. CCS can undo the damage of the past 140 years.
What’s more, our societies won’t survive without it. We have learned that our planet is heating much faster than all but the darkest projections anticipated: The Earth’s average temperature is on track to hit 2 degrees Celsius of warming not by 2050, but by 2032, according to the latest estimates from the World Meteorological Organization. We will be on the doorstep, at 1.5 degrees of warming from pre-industrial levels, in as soon as five years.
Put it this way: Even if we replaced every coal plant with renewables, found and fixed every methane leak from natural gas infrastructure, swapped every family’s internal combustion car and minivan and SUV with electric vehicles, it would still be too little, too late.
But thanks to American innovation and international collaboration, this is no longer an intractable problem. With CCS, we have a solution — one that’s ready to deploy now. The first carbon-capture project, at a coal plant in Canada, went live in 2014. There are now dozens of such projects around the world, including some that suck the CO2 right out of the atmosphere, and the U.S. is leading the way.
Why is America No. 1 in carbon capture? A major reason is that CCS builds on the critical skills, expertise and capabilities developed by America’s oil and gas industries — arguably the foremost experts in how to safely drill deep holes into the Earth. Hence, CCS not only harnesses American ingenuity and equipment, it promises to put thousands of U.S. petroleum workers back to work — not generating emissions, but capturing them.
There are three main ways of storing or “sequestering” the carbon that’s captured: Biological, carbonates, and underground.
Biological CCS includes forests and seaweed, among the oldest carbon sinks on the planet. There’s also “carbon farming,” where farmers, simply by making their soil healthier, can transform their land and crops into verdant carbon sponges spanning thousands of acres. But biological methods can only get us part of the way there.
Even better, carbon has become a key ingredient for making other industries greener: Concrete producers, for example, have started replacing Portland cement — whose production generates enormous emissions — with carbonates made from CO2, transforming bridges and skyscrapers and sidewalks into giant vaults for greenhouse gases. Even baking soda can be made with captured emissions: that next birthday cake or batch of pancakes might be a miniature carbon sink.
The largest carbon sink of all may be underground, in some of the very rock formations that held the fossil carbon to begin with. The most conventional approach involves injecting the captured gas deep beneath the Earth, up to 10,000 feet below the surface, where it fills salt domes and sandstone formations like subterranean balloons.
The problem, however, is that once underground, the carbon can sometimes leak. That’s where newer, cheaper, and more reliable technologies come in: storing carbon in porous rock formations like coals and shales. Instead of balloons, the formations act like sponges, soaking in and retaining the carbon particles. And because they are shallower, the injection process is cheaper and easier.
Whatever we do with the carbon we capture we need to start capturing it now — and in vast amounts. The “overhang” of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is estimated at 150 billion tons — or 7 tons of carbon dioxide for every person on Earth.
The US Congress recently enacted 45Q, a crucial tax credit that helps defray the costs of carbon capture projects. Lawmakers and policymakers can further accelerate deployment by expanding eligibility criteria for the credit, and by introducing new incentives, such as grants and loan guarantees.
This isn’t simply a climate plan — it’s a jobs plan, one tailor-made for a U.S. oil and gas workforce hammered by the global crash in oil prices. Tens of thousands of roughnecks and petroleum engineers, equipped with training and know-how from America’s oil and gas boom through the past decade, could be put back to work across the country virtually overnight. That’s something lawmakers of both parties can get behind.
We are on the cusp of a new age of American clean energy, one where we can take great strides toward solving the climate crisis while invigorating our economy, creating jobs and spearheading the global deployment of an American technology that’s not simply crucial, but required.
Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, put it this way: “When we consider the scale of the energy and climate challenge, the critical importance of carbon capture is inescapable. No other technology is capable of delivering the deep emissions reductions needed. Deployment of CCS will not be optional.”
Note: Chris Varrone has invested a small sum in a private venture related to CCS. This article was originally published by the author on LinkedIn.