Oil and gas companies are lobbying the federal government for billions in tax dollars to push an expensive and unproven technology — carbon capture, utilization, and storage — as a magical solution to the climate crisis. But in reality, the real goal is to continue business as usual until every drop of oil is burned.
Scientists have long been clear: this is the most critical decade for climate action. We must cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Fortunately, we have the tools to achieve this. It has never been easier or more affordable to start putting climate solutions into practice — tools like renewable energy, electrifying our homes and transportation, and making our buildings and industries more energy efficient.
Of course, this represents a major threat to powerful fossil fuel companies, who for decades have failed to act responsibly when faced with climate science. Historically, fossil fuel companies have worked to cast doubt on climate science.
In recent years, as outright climate denial has become increasingly indefensible, fossil fuel companies have pivoted towards a politics of delay. Their latest scheme: pushing carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).
Oil and gas companies are now trying to paint a picture of a future where we can still have just as much — or more — oil and gas production, but where power plants and oil refineries can capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks and bury the emissions deep in the ground.
However, despite what the oil and gas industry wants us to believe, CCUS is not a climate solution. It’s a distraction from the need for a rapid transformation away from fossil fuel use that is required to keep global warming below catastrophic levels within this decade. And internal documents reveal that oil and gas companies know this — and see the technology as a way to get social license to continue producing fossil fuels for decades to come (although they warn their employees from publicly stating that).
Five decades on from the first carbon capture project, and despite decades of research and tens of billions of dollars in public subsidies globally, carbon capture projects have not made a dent in reducing emissions, capturing just a tiny fraction — 0.001 per cent of global carbon emissions.
CCUS projects have a track record of over-promising and under-delivering. For example, one of Canada’s flagship CCUS projects, Boundary Dam 3, initially promised a capture rate of 90 per cent. It never reached that rate, so SaskPower eventually lowered its expectations to 65 per cent — a target the facility still regularly fails to meet.
The vast majority of CCUS projects never get off the ground, in large part because the technology is prohibitively expensive.
Building carbon capture infrastructure, capturing and compressing carbon dioxide, building more infrastructure to pipe captured carbon, and then developing suitable geological storage sites, all requires huge sums of money and energy.
Despite significant effort, over its 50-year commercial history, carbon capture costs have not declined. Renewable power is already cheaper than fossil gas or coal, and that’s without adding in the costs of capturing carbon.
CCUS is often portrayed as a new technology — it’s not. Its use began decades ago as a way to get cheap carbon for enhanced oil recovery, a process where carbon is injected into depleted underground oil reservoirs to boost oil production, extraction that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. To date, almost all of the carbon dioxide being captured is actually being used to pump more oil out of the ground that would have otherwise been unreachable.
A 2020 review of scientific research found that popular carbon capture methods have actually put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they have removed.
Even if the technology was actually able to deliver on its promises and wasn't being used for more oil production — and even if companies could guarantee safe and permanent storage of the captured carbon, carbon capture still isn’t a climate solution.
The technology doesn’t address downstream emissions — those are the emissions produced when the fossils are burnt (in our cars, to heat our homes, etc.). That’s where 80 per cent of emissions come from.
CCUS also doesn’t address the significant methane leakage from the production and distribution of oil and gas. Methane is 86 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — and the gas is responsible for about a quarter of global warming — so this is a huge gap.
Beyond climate impacts, CCUS technology does not address the hazardous air and water pollutants that come from producing and burning fossil fuels. And because CCUS is so energy intensive, the amount of these other pollutants actually increases when carbon capture is added to refineries and power plants, with real health and safety implications for frontline communities.
The buildout of CCUS infrastructure would require an enormous system of pipelines to transport the carbon, which would also be dangerous for nearby communities. Carbon leaks can pose serious health risks. For example, when a carbon dioxide pipeline ruptured in Mississippi in 2020, 300 people were evacuated and 45 people had to be hospitalized.
Oil and gas companies know these are dead-end technologies which won’t make a dent in emissions, but are using them anyway to delay the clean energy transition, justify ongoing production and wring out even more government subsidies.
Right now, Canadian oil and gas CEOs are lobbying for $50 billion from taxpayers to pay for carbon capture and storage. These companies are currently profiting like never before. Yet so far, these companies have not spent their own money to reduce their emissions.
Putting public money into CCUS diverts resources from reliable, proven — and cheaper — climate solutions. That’s one of the reasons that more than 400 of Canada’s leading scientists and experts called on the Government of Canada not to introduce new subsidies for CCUS. Their recommendations were ignored.
Governments in Canada have already spent nearly $5.8 billion on carbon capture projects. Collectively these expensive projects only capture around 3.55 million tonnes of carbon per year – 0.05 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. And 70 per cent of the carbon captured in Canada is used for enhanced oil recovery — so, even more production.
That means all these huge public subsidies have resulted in more emissions, rather than less.
Subsidies for carbon capture and storage are gifts to the oil and gas industry, allowing it to continue business as usual while providing a distraction from real climate solutions.
Betting big on carbon capture is a dangerous gamble. Doing so with public dollars is irresponsible.
Julia Levin is Associate Director, National Climate, for Environmental Defence